NEW YORK, Sept. 13 -- Fox Television and the ESPN cable network announced five-year agreements Tuesday with the National Hockey League, which is trying to increase the game's exposure in the United States. The deal with Fox, which is reportedly worth $155 million, puts the NHL on a broadcast outlet in the United States for the first time in 20 years. Fox's coverage, which will begin with up to 16 games per season and will include Games 1, 4, and 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, starts with the Jan. 21 All-Star game in San Jose, Calif. Fox may increase its coverage to up to 20 games in the final two seasons of the contract. Fox's agreement with the NHL covers 'broadcast television and other broadcast opportunities,' according to a pre-announcement statement released last week. Earlier this year, Fox Sports spent nearly $1.6 billion to outbid CBS in a groundbreaking contract for the rights to the National Football League's NFC games. Fox Chairman Rupert Murdoch has been particularly aggressive in recent months in trying to elevate Fox to equal status with the Big Three -- ABC, CBS and NBC -- as Warner Bros. and Paramount try to launch new networks, and reportedly was personally involved in finalizing the NHL deal. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said he feels 'Fox offers demographics which are well-suited to our own and that will help us to increase our following.' NHL leaders have pushed for more coverage of league games on American television since Bettman, a former NBA executive, took over as the league's commissioner in February 1993.
Bettman has called for 'maximum exposure' of the sport, which has added five new franchises since 1992. The NHL has been without a regular broadcast contract with the exception of the All-Star game, which had been carried by NBC since 1990. CBS, which lost its share of the NFL contract to Fox, also reportedly was seeking to air NHL games. The new ESPN deal also is geared to give the NHL more national exposure. It gives the cable network exclusive rights to all conference final and Stanley Cup Finals games it televises. The NHL was entering the third year of a five-year deal with ESPN, which is 80 percent owned by CapCities/ABC. The new contract with ESPN, which reportedly calls for the same $12.8 million per year payment, will run through the 1998-99 season. The principle change in the new deal is the lifting of local blackouts for games ESPN televises during the conference finals and Stanley Cup Finals. Previously, ESPN was not allowed into the markets of the two teams involved. In addition to lifting the playoff blackout for the final two rounds, the regular season blackout rule was relaxed. ESPN will be able to lift the home market blackout and coexist with the local telecaster once per season during the first three years of the pact. ESPN will be able to lift the blackout twice per year in the last two years of the contract. The NHL also announced major sponsorship agreements with Anheuser- Busch and Nike, which were reached over the summer. Tony Ponturo of Anheuser-Busch said the NHL's favorable numbers in the 21-34 age group made it attractive towards marketing its 'Ice Draft' beer. Nike, which sponsored the recent NHL venture that sent the Winnipeg Jets to Finland to play a group of local teams, will sponsor a street hockey program in every NHL city, company executive Doug Stamm said.