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The NHL is betting that a new NBC/ Comcast sports partnership can take on cable sports giant ESPN in the U.S.

With news Tuesday that the league and its current U.S. network/cable partners have reached agreement on a new 10-year deal starting in the 2012-'13 season, the NHL rejected ESPN, the highly influential sports force in the U.S., and casting its lot in America with an upstart 24-hour sports property being formed between NBC and Comcast, the huge U.S. cable company.

The league will make $2-billion (U.S.) over the course of the decade-long deal. (The previous agreement saw NBC and the NHL splitting profits on their network package with no rights fee to the league.) While the dollar figure represents only an annual $6.6-million per team, finally getting paid for a network deal marks a minor triumph for NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who spurned ESPN after the 2004-'05 lockout and has stuck with NBC and Comcast despite criticism of the household reach of Versus, their hockey channel.

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Bettman said he had "no regrets" about going with NBC and Versus.

"When we looked at the entire package and the relationship it was clear to us we were going to be with the incumbent," said Bettman. "Everyone has enormous respect for ESPN.

"Six years ago we chose to go in a different direction for a variety of reasons and we believe it's worked out well for us. Versus' coverage of our game has been extraordinary and hockey fans and sports fans have found it and actually have been telling us they think the coverage is terrific. And I think it's only going to get better."

The new additional platforms on NBC/Comcast will make the NHL a large fish in a smaller pond compared to being swamped in ESPN's vast network of properties. The NHL hopes to extend its brand across the range of NBC/Comcast properties including Golf Channel, E Entertainment, MSNBC and Bravo.

Jon Litner, president of Comcast SportsNet, believes that the sport's demographics helped seal the deal. "Hockey has the most attractive young male demo," he said Tuesday. "and advertisers known that." NBC also cited a ratings rise of over 84 per cent nationally in the league's overall ratings since 2007.

Canadian TV rights expire at the end of the 2013-14 season. It's believed that in the current frenzied competition between Canadian telcos for properties and rights the rights fees could equal the $200-million per year figure of the NHL's U.S deal. That figure would no doubt squeeze out CBC, the current rights holder, which cannot amortize such a large payment across a secondary business -- as the telcos can.

The U.S. deal was, in part, predicated by Bettman's longtime relationship with NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol stretching back to the commissioner's days at the NBA.

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At Tuesday's press conference in New York, Ebersol said he "had not had a better friend than (Bettman)". Ebersol also indicated that NBC's channels would have exclusivity in the postseason, and that regular season games on NBC/Comcast would go from 77 to 90 as of next year.

"We're delighted," Ebersol said. "There is nothing that fits the NBC Sports Group better on all platforms than the NHL.

"Between the national cable rights, the broadcast rights, the digital rights, and the fact that the NHL is a significant part of some of our strongest RSNs, it brings a strength to that entire platform that nothing else can.

"It just means we have a commitment to hockey all year that we can sell across all these platforms. And after six years of experimentation, our free time is over and I'm happy it's over because we've learned together."

As well, NBC/Comcast is promising to make over hockey's image as its prime sports tenant on Versus and a significant force on the main network. Sources tell the Globe & Mail that the broadcaster and the league are looking to create a "March Madness" style promotion of the playoffs on both NBC and its news sports cable channel. They will also extend the reach of the NHL's Winter Classic, which Ebersol described as "single most successful new sports venture on the American landscape in a decade".

The anticipated loss of one or two U.S. franchises to Canada does not appear to have been an impediment to the new contract. Phoenix and Atlanta, both thought to be targets for Canadian relocation, are both in the top 12 American media markets.

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The deal will also extend into digital rights-- a lucrative growth area for networks struggling to cope with new PVR technology. There will be integration of rights' deals permitting more access to highlights and games across platforms. But the league continues to control its NHL Center Ice and NHL Network properties. The deal also represents just the second time the NHL has renewed its U.S. network TV contract with the same network since the 1960s.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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