NHL set to renegotiate U.S. TV rights deal

League eying a return of ESPN to the bargaining table

TORONTO -- The National Hockey League (NHL) has its season-opener in Toronto on Thursday night, but the buzz this week is on the pro hockey league's next TV rights deal stateside.

Now in the final year of its U.S. cable and broadcast contracts with Versus and NBC, NHL COO John Collins gave little away Monday as he gets set for an exclusive window of negotiations with the current rights holders on a future deal.

That includes speculation on what the upcoming merger between Versus/Comcast and NBC will mean for the negotiations, and whether the NHL will be looking for NBC to pay for the right to air games after only now splitting ad revenue.

"We have a lot of ideas of things that we'd like to see, that we think will make the business better. And ... I'm sure our partners have some ideas that they'd like to see to make our business better," Collins said.

"And we'll start with that and see where it goes," he added of the upcoming negotiations.

Collins did insist the NHL is in a far stronger bargaining position than when it last negotiated U.S. TV contracts in the wake of the 2004/05 players lockout.

Having joined the league in 2007, Collins has left no stone unturned as he builds a stronger North American fan base through enriched online and mobile content, and expanded corporate sponsorship and big-event programming like the Stanley Cup playoffs on NBC and the mid-season Winter Classic game, this year to be part of a first-time HBO reality series.

And the NHL last season generated record TV ratings during the playoffs, and experienced a 66% increase in advertising and sponsorship revenue, according to the league.

The payoff for league club owners is expected to be potentially more lucrative U.S. cable and broadcast deals after the impending negotiations.

To secure that gain, the NHL is eying a return of ESPN to the bargaining table for the league's future TV rights to, not least, raise the stakes for Comcast and Versus.

The NHL already has an international TV deal with ESPN America.

And Fox Sports appears to be another rumored bidder for a future NHL cable/broadcast package.