Can Los Angeles owner Philip Anschutz get the NHL back on ESPN?

I’ve just completed a three-day media tour of Los Angeles, organized by the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau, and one very interesting NHL-related detail leaped out at me during a presentation about the L.A. LIVE project.

AEG (Anschutz Entertainment Group) is overseeing this $2.5-billion, 27-acre development in downtown Los Angeles, and it aspires to become the West’s answer to New York’s Times Square upon completion in early 2010. Some L.A. LIVE facilities, like the 7,100-seat Nokia Theatre, have already opened, and brand-name restaurants, movie theatres, hotels, and the new Grammy Museum are slated to follow. The existing hub is the Staples Center, home of the Los Angeles Kings.

Now here’s where it gets interesting for American NHL fans. As of October 2008, ESPN will expand its corporate horizons beyond Bristol, Connecticut. The “Worldwide Leader in Sports” will open a full-fledged West Coast headquarters with studios and live shows, right across the street from the Staples Center.

The headquarters will sit adjacent to the Nokia Plaza, which has six 75-foot multimedia towers with huge LED screens–seemingly ideal for live broadcasts of major sports events. When I approached L.A. LIVE by car on Wednesday, the first thing I noticed was hockey highlights flashing on those screens. In addition, an ESPN Zone sports-themed restaurant will be part of this development.

So what does all this mean in an era where synergy is everything? L.A. LIVE’s plans just might indicate that the NHL is seriously and imminently eyeing a return to game broadcasts on ESPN. (Or, if you want to get technical, returning mostly to ESPN2.)

Kings owner Philip Anschutz, the 31st richest American with an estimated net worth of $7.8 billion in 2006, has chosen to invest significantly in the ESPN brand at a time when Versus still holds the right to extend its NHL cable TV contract through 2010-11. And as a global sports tycoon, this 67-year-old Kansas native isn’t the kind of guy who makes idle, unmotivated choices. The latest evidence of his increasing NHL clout was the two-game series between the Kings and Anaheim Mighty Ducks that kicked off the 2007-08 season at the Anschutz-owned O2 Arena in London.

As Eric McErlain noted earlier this month, there have already been rumblings that Versus is open to negotiating a deal with ESPN that would enable the latter network to start showing some NHL games in 2008-09, thereby giving the league a larger USA-wide footprint than it’s enjoyed since the lockout.

AEG officials told me they’re open to many possibilities when it comes to creating synergy between their NHL franchise and L.A. LIVE. The ESPN angle could turn out to be the biggest story of all. Stay tuned. Digg it Furl iFeedReaders Netscape RawSugar reddit StumbleUpon Yahoo MyWeb YardBarker

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