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NHL OK'S DISNEY DEAL, FOX MAY JUMP A YEAR EARLY

The National Hockey League's Board of Governors approved a five-year, $600 million contract with Disney-owned ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 on Thursday for exclusive broadcast and cable-TV rights starting with the 1999-2000 season. That signaled an imminent end to the NHL's brief and bumpy relationship with the Fox Broadcasting Co.

The NHL's five-year, $155 million agreement with Fox for broadcast rights has one season left. However, Fox is expected to dump the final year, and ABC would seem the likely buyer.

The deal will be announced next week by the NHL.

The Board of Governors voted on the matter despite a letter from Fox last week disputing the deadline for it to counter Disney's offer. Fox had 10 business days to match a rival bid after being informed of one by the NHL. By the league's calculation, the deadline was Aug. 14.

Fox contends that the deadline should have been later because the NHL initially disclosed the value of only the broadcast portion of Disney's offer and omitted the cable portion. Without knowing the value of each component, Fox said, it was at a disadvantage in preparing a counterbid.

League and Disney sources say, however, that Fox was never eager to renew hockey, a theory supported by Fox's earlier decision to pass up its right to extend its contract by two years. Those sources say the letter was merely a legal ploy for Fox to cite should it want to contest Disney's contract.

Disney is believed to be paying $350 million to keep the cable rights on its ESPN networks -- where hockey is a cornerstone of its sports programming -- and $250 million for the broadcast rights, although some sources suggest the split might be closer to $450 million-$150 million. ESPN's current deal is $100 million over seven years and expires after next season.

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