AD UNITS, RATES SEEN RISING IN BIG DISNEY PACT WITH NHL: FOX OUT AS ABC GETS BROADCAST; MEDIA BUYERS WARY ON PRICING

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National Hockey League fans will see more commercials on ESPN's telecasts of NHL games next year, part of the deal Walt Disney Co. struck last week.

Disney's ABC will pay $50 million a year, 61% more than Fox's current $31 million fee. To retain cable rights, ESPN's annual fee goes from $15 million to $70 million.

Steve Bornstein, president-CEO of ESPN and president of ABC Sports, said Disney will make money on the deal. So higher ad rates are expected.

Also, ESPN will add an unspecified number of commercial units, added Steve Solomon, NHL's senior VP.

FOX-LIKE FORMAT?

"It's too early to say how many [ad units there] will be or what that format will look like," said Mr. Solomon. "It's possible the format will look closer to what the Fox broadcast looks like now."

Ad agency media buyers received the news of rate increases and added inventory-and the promise of profits-with some skepticism.

According to one media buyer, the average 30-second spot on an ABC/ESPN regular season NHL broadcast would have to cost $49,000. Fox reportedly couldn't get more than $40,000 for a spot on last spring's Stanley Cup Finals.

Depressed ratings have undermined the value of advertising on NHL telecasts. Fox's NHL ratings among the sport's key demographic-men ages 18 to 49-have slipped 41% since 1994.

Fox's contract expires next year, but the network wants to be let out of its commitment early.

Disney and the NHL are banking on more aggressive promotion to boost ratings. Mr. Solomon said the Disney agreement marks the first time the NHL requested a specific commitment of promotional support from a broadcast network.

"I don't want to break out a value on what Fox gave us, but in aggregate what ABC will provide will be larger," Mr. Solomon said.

PROMOS UNDER SCRUTINY

It has yet to be determined if the added promotion will be contained within NHL broadcasts or in non-NHL programming, especially in prime time.

The promos will be produced by ABC and ESPN. The NHL will retain two units in every telecast to use for its own league advertising, produced in-house.

Also, the deal calls for ESPN to air a new 30-minute program, to be produced by the league. Mr. Solomon said creative details haven't been finalized.

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