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Comcast may launch ESPN rival
No. 1 cable company may bid for NHL, NFL games to challenge top sports network -- report.
July 27, 2005: 9:16 AM EDT
Comcast is reporterdly considering bidding for NFL and NHL games for its Outdoor Life Network, which currently has the Tour de France as its most popular program.
Comcast is reporterdly considering bidding for NFL and NHL games for its Outdoor Life Network, which currently has the Tour de France as its most popular program.

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Comcast Corp., the nation's largest cable operator, may be weighing a sports network to challenge the leadership of ESPN, according to a published report.

The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that Comcast may try to turn its niche Outdoor Life Network into a more broad-based sports network. At first it would need to land rights to broadcast games from the National Hockey League and National Football League to give it the sports programming it needs to attract viewers and greater cable distribution.

The NFL has recently signed broadcast rights deals with ESPN that run through 2013 and three broadcast networks that run through 2011 to carry most of its games. But the NFL will offer Thursday and Saturday night games late in the season starting in the 2006 season.

Comcast is in talks to broadcast those Thursday and Saturday games, according to the report, for as much as $400 million a year. The Journal reported that in one scenario under discussion, Comcast would give the NFL an equity stake in the rebranded sports channel.

OLN would need to increase its reach in order to be competitive for NFL games. It now reaches about 61 million homes. But it expects to reach 67 million homes by the end of 2005 with its current programming lineup, which includes the Tour de France, the Boston Marathon and professional bull riding.

Comcast bid for ESPN owner Walt Disney in early 2004, partly attracted by Disney's profitable cable networks, led by the ESPN brand. Broadcasting NFL Sunday night games starting in 1987 was a key to building the ESPN franchise, and in 2006 the cable network will start broadcasting "Monday Night Football," which had long been a staple of Disney-owned broadcast network ABC.

A less expensive and more immediate entry into team sports could be the NHL, which lost its entire 2004-05 season to a labor dispute. ESPN declined an option to carry NHL games this season under a pre-lockout rights deal, although the Journal reports it is interested in a new, lower-priced deal. It would have paid about $70 million for the NHL games on cable under that earlier deal. But the NHL will be scrambling to find a cable outlet for its season that starts in October.

OLN's most popular program is the Tour de France, the bicycle race that drew about 1.5 million daily viewers in 2004 and saw up to a 30 percent increase in viewership this year.

But with American rider Lance Armstrong expected to retire after winning his seventh straight title on Sunday, the Tour's viewership is expected to fall sharply next year.

For more on OLN and its Tour de France broadcasts, click here.  Top of page

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