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Could ESPN Be Interested In Hockey Once Again?

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Mediaweek has good news for the NHL, cleverly changing the acronym to "National Hot League" in a headline on Sunday, a la Paris Hilton or something. But seriously, the news from them is very good for the NHL as they explore their options regarding a new television contract.

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Ratings are up, advertisers are buying, and it appears that a bidding war between Versus and ESPN could be coming.

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The uptick in hockey comes at a crucial time for the current rights holders. With Versus and NBC contracts set to expire in 2011, John Skipper, evp of content at ESPN, has indicated he’d like hockey to return to ESPN and ABC.

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Jamie Davis, president of Versus, aims to hold on to the asset. “We took over the telecasts in 2005, the year after the lockout, and together with the NHL, as true partners, we have worked to bring the viewers back,” Davis said.

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At least one media buyer is rooting for Versus. “If the NHL goes back to ESPN, it is going to get lost on a network that shows so many different sports,” said one national TV buyer. “On Versus, it stands out.”

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The buyer added that the completion of the proposed Comcast-NBC deal would make a joint NBC/Versus hockey buy just as potent as an ABC/ESPN buy.

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There's no telling if hockey will return to ESPN at some point, and the debate about whether or not that's even a good thing for the game will rage on. But there's no denying that having options is a good thing, and the NHL continues to regain popularity, those options will only increase.