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NHL.com ices Microsoft deal

In a slapshot at RealNetworks, the National Hockey League, in partnership with Microsoft, introduces a digital video subscription service for watching game highlights.

The National Hockey League on Monday introduced a subscription service for digital-video game highlights, in partnership with Microsoft.

"The NHL Highlight Machine" is the sports league's first-ever paid service. For $4.95 a month or $29.95 a season, hockey fans can search for and watch highlights from the 2002-03 season. In November, they will also be able to access classic games for up to $3 per view.

NHL.com's service is delivered using Microsoft's Windows Media Player 9 Series, the software maker's newest video-streaming and player technology. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

The deal advances the relationship between NHL.com and Microsoft. Last year, NHL.com and Microsoft's MSN signed an to broadcast hockey games for free with Windows technology, a job previously held by Yahoo's Broadcast.com. The MSN Web network also acts as an umbrella site for NHL.com, pushing traffic to other sports sites such as ESPN.com.

For Microsoft, the partnership is another point on the scoreboard for its Windows Media 9 Series, streaming software in heavy competition with RealNetworks' technology.

RealNetworks, which launched its latest multimedia streaming technology this summer, has focused on signing up content partnerships with Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association to build up membership for its RealOne SuperPass--a subscription service with more than 700,000 paying members. In contrast, Microsoft has said it is positioning its technology as a back-end digital video delivery system for any number of applications--including video-on-demand or electronic devices--rather than a centerpiece for content.

Still, with the NHL.com deal, Microsoft appears to be racking up content deals similar to RealNetworks, analysts say. The company has already signed up a number of content deals and created "tabs" on its latest player for sites including Net film distributor CinemaNow.

"It's a ding at RealNetworks, which with NHL.com would have all sports' seasons wrapped up in one subscription service," said Ryan Jones, analyst at the Yankee Group, a research firm. "Microsoft has been going for the technology side but now is putting more focus on content."

RealNetworks was not immediately available for comment.

NHL.com's video-on-demand service will largely be geared for broadband subscribers, which make up an estimated 75 percent of the site's 12 million monthly visitors.

Keith Ritter, president of NHL ICE--the interactive cyber enterprises for the sports league--said MSN's highly trafficked Web sites and relationships with sites such as ESPN.com played into his decision to use Windows Media technology over rival software. He estimated that the site has seen a 10 percent bump in traffic over the last year because of MSN's muscle.

"It?s a big fire hose, and when they point it at you, you get real wet," said Ritter.