NHL picks Sun after ejecting IBM from the ice

Sun Microsystems Inc. announced a glamorous customer win Wednesday: a technology and marketing alliance making Sun the premier technology provider for the National Hockey League (NHL) and the NHL Players' Association. Sun fills a gap left after the NHL gradually unwound a previous alliance with IBM Corp.

Sun Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Scott McNealy and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman heralded their alliance with great fanfare at a press conference here at Nasdaq's Time Square outpost, but details on the terms of the partnership deal were scant. Financial terms of the arrangement were not disclosed. The deal includes Sun hardware, software, storage and services for the NHL, and certain marketing rights for Sun, although McNealy termed it "not a sponsorship deal" and said the NHL will be a paying Sun customer.

The NHL handles many of its technology needs and runs its Web site in-house, through its NHL Interactive Cyber Enterprises (NHL-ICE) unit. Created in 1996, NHL-ICE was initially a multimillion dollar joint venture with IBM, which provided "the bulk of the cash and the hardware," an IBM spokesman said at the time.

The NHL bought out IBM's stake in NHL-ICE approximately 16 months ago, said NHL-ICE President Keith Ritter reached by phone after the press conference Wednesday. "After a period of time, the league decided it wanted to fully own its Internet operations," Ritter said. "Having an outside partner in that venture sometimes made it difficult to optimize the integration (between the NHL and its Web operations)."

Since the alliance was dissolved, the NHL has had occasional discussions with IBM, which Ritter characterized as "a good partner." Sun was selected for the current partnership partially because of its willingness to "make a commitment to this league and to promote our game." Sun met NHL's needs from a sponsorship perspective, Ritter said: "Any time you engage in a relationship with anybody, it's a two-way street. Sun thought that we could be reflective of their brand. It's just a really good fit."

IBM did not respond by press time to calls seeking comment.

The partnership will affect all aspects of the NHL's operations, including its NHL.com Web site and back-office operations such as data sharing within the league, executives said. Sun's technology will make NHL.com "faster, more powerful and more user friendly," Bettman said; he also said Sun will help the NHL rebuild its NHL- and IBM-designed statistics gathering Real-Time Scoring System using Java technology, and aid in development of broadband and wireless content.

Sun will receive exclusive marketing rights among IT vendors at top league events, and will have a "substantial" media presence during NHL broadcasts, the company said. McNealy -- a dedicated hockey fan and player -- said the deal was not primarily a marketing arrangement, but that when the sponsorship opportunity presented itself, "I certainly wasn't going to turn it down."

Sun also powers MLB.com, the Web site of Major League Baseball. The work done there is an example of some of Sun's capabilities, McNealy said, although Bettman said that the NHL has "been the most cutting-edge of all the sports sites" and expects to load its Web site with unique bells and whistles.

Both McNealy and Bettman loaded their remarks with sports-themed quips and clichés. McNealy also managed to work in his requisite Microsoft Corp. ding, referring to a non-functioning microphone as a "Microsoft mike."

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Stacy Cowley

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