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NBCU, Versus Buy Big Into Hockey

4/25/2011 12:01 AM Eastern

Though the rechristening of NBC Universal’s
Versus won’t take place for another few months, the network
will be home to the National Hockey League — and
plenty of it — for another decade.

Under the 10-year, $2 billion multimedia rights deal, the
NBC Sports Group — in its first big score under Comcast’s
watch — announced with the NHL last week (April 19) that
Versus and NBC will remain the national U.S. TV homes of
the puck sport into the next decade.

The deal will boost the number of regular-season games
on Versus — which will be rebranded with an NBC appellation
sometime within the next three months — from 52
to 90, with additional exclusive windows. The network will
air up to 24 of the 28 games in the conference semifi nals,
with the balance of the contests on NBC. Where there are
scheduling conflicts, an undisclosed NBCU cable network
will step onto the ice.

Previously, regional sports networks, which will continue
to air games in the opening round of the postseason, had
some non-exclusive rights during the Stanley Cup Playoffs’
second round.

The two incumbents — who have also secured digital rights,
including game streaming — will combine for some 100 regular-
season contests, including game-of-the-week telecasts
for both networks. More important, the teammates, joined
now on a corporate level by Comcast’s control of a 51% stake
in NBC Universal, will have full exclusivity through the fi nal
three rounds of the playoffs, culminating with Versus airing
games 3 and 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals. NBC will air games 1
and 2 and, if necessary, games 5 through 7.

NETTING MORE MONEY

Under the contract that expires at the conclusion of the current
campaign, Versus has paid an average of $77 million
per season, while NBC has operated with a revenue-sharing
arrangement. NBC will be paying a rights fee under the
new deal, although the cable channel will handle most of
the rights outlay.

The question now is whether NBC Sports Group’s first
rights agreement under Comcast is a harbinger of things to
come in the sports-rights derby — bidding for the Olympic
Games is expected in June, and the Pac-12 college conference
is looking to build its own sports network. Comcast
systems match up relatively well with the conference’s West
Coast footprint. Other properties are also available.

With the pact, the NHL continues its momentum since
the 2004-05 season was shut out by a labor dispute. During
the summer of 2005, then-incumbent ESPN/ABC Sports,
which had paid an average of $120 million in rights fees
from 1999-2004, put its deal on ice, opening the way fo Versus,
the Comcast service
then known as Outdoor
Life Network, to skate in
and scoop up a three-year
contract, which was subsequently
renewed and concludes
this June.

Since then, Versus has lit
the Nielsen lamp with some
of the game’s best-ever cable
marks. NBC has scored
well with the Winter Classic
on New Year’s Day —
the 2011 contest ranked as
the top regular-season audience
for the sport in 36
years — and with Game
6 of the 2010 Stanley Cup
Finals, which marked the
largest NHL audience ever
in the U.S. The NHL has
bolstered its sponsorship
base and the sport has become
an effective vehicle to
reach young males.

To that end, Dick Ebersol,
chairman of the NBC
Sports Group, touted the
sport’s appeal to advertisers during a conference call announcing
the new rights deal.

“We have the market power we need, for Madison Avenue,
for advertising,” Ebersol said, noting that with the
various broadcast and cable exclusivities, the NBC Sports
Group offers “one-stop shopping” for the NHL.

The agreement, described during the conference call
by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman as the “most significant U.S. media deal we have been able to participate in,”
was also fueled by the incumbent’s interest in retaining the
rights, which have lifted Versus’ ratings and distribution,
as well as bids by ESPN and Turner. Fox, whose regional
sports networks provide the majority of the NHL’s regularseason
coverage, also expressed preliminary interest in a
sport it formerly carried on its broadcast network.

“There is a buzz around the league with the media and
advertisers,” said one sports executive familiar with the
deal, who declined to be identified. “Given the added exclusivities,
I think [the pact’s] somewhat undervalued and
I’m surprised by the length of the contract. [The NHL] could
be sitting on some bigger numbers halfway through the
deal.”

NHL chief operating officer John Collins said the league
is excited by the new partnership. “The NHL and the Stanley
Cup playoffs are going to be the centerpiece across
many platforms,” he said. “The NBCU Cable portfolio has
great firepower.”

NBCU officials declined interview requests.

LOCAL POWER PLAY

Starting next season, Versus also will gain more exclusive
regular-season games, taking away contests from regional
sports networks. The NHL plans to air the final
three rounds of its playoffs nationally, a move that will
remove some of the RSNs’ highest-rated contests. The
change transfers rights from Comcast-owned RSNs that
carry hockey to its national platforms. But it also closes
valuable postseason windows for RSNs under the Fox
Sports Net aegis, as well as others run by MSG Media and
DirecTV Sports.

Officials at Fox Sports Net, MSG Media and DirecTV
Sports declined to comment about the new scheduling.

Asked about the new format and reaction from the clubs
and RSNs, Collins said: “We want to make the Stanley Cup
playoffs a bigger platform, to get our postseason before
more fans and advertisers. There is no certainty, even if
you’re the Yankees, that teams are going to make the playoffs each year.”

September