SUN Hockey Pool

NHL deal turns off ESPN

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. (REUTERS/Shaun Best)

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. (REUTERS/Shaun Best)

MIKE ZEISBERGER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:11 PM ET

The chest-beating going on between NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NBC Sports Group chairman Dick Ebersol on Tuesday about their new 10-year media partnership agreement in the United States is all well and good.

And if the estimates are true that the marriage could net the NHL as much as US$2 billion over the term of the contract, even better.

But before this love-in gets too giddy, it’s time for both parties to address the real issue here.

Simply put, in far too many hockey markets, it is just too difficult to pick up Versus, the network under the NBC Sports Group umbrella that is the primary national carrier of weekday games south of the border.

Ask any media members on the hockey beat who do a lot of travelling and they’ll be quick to tell you that many major hotels in NHL markets, including New York, simply don’t include Versus among the available channels.

By passing over ESPN in favour of the NBC Group, the league has made the decision not to go with the carrier that, let’s face it, would have made it much easier and been more readily available for fans across America to watch hockey.

“We had constructive conversations with the NHL offering them the opportunity for unprecedented distribution of every game of the Stanley Cup playoffs on ESPN platforms, including authentication to broadband and mobile devices,” ESPN said in a statement.

Both the NHL and the NBC Sports Group claim the deal, which runs through the 2020-21 season, brings more nationally televised hockey to American fans than ever before.

We'll see.

NBC remains the exclusive network home and Versus the exclusive cable home of the NHL in the United States. It marks the first-ever national distribution of all Stanley Cup Playoffs games, including, for the first time, exclusive coverage starting with the conference semifinals. The agreement also calls for the NBC Sports Group to televise 100 regular season games per year and introduces a national NBC broadcast on the Friday of American Thanksgiving weekend in late November.

During the regular season, NBC will continue to broadcast a national “Game of the Week,” the NHL Winter Classic and “Hockey Day in America.” Versus will telecast a national “Game of the Week,” plus NHL Premiere Games, NHL Faceoff, the NHL All-Star Game and any future NHL Heritage Classic outdoor games in Canada.

If the league gets $200 million per year as part of this package, it is easily the largest TV deal ever signed by the league, topping the $120 million reportedly paid by ESPN from 1999 to 2004. Versus currently pays about $75 million per year while NBC pays no rights fees but has a revenue sharing arrangement with the NHL.

“This is the most significant U.S. media rights partnership in the League’s history,” Bettman said. “NBC Universal/Comcast is one of the most important, connected and ‘wired’ media companies in the U.S., and as the potential of the NBC Sports Group is realized, the importance of our relationship will become more apparent to hockey fans and our business partners.”

Versus averaged 353,000 viewers for games in 2010-11, up 19% from last season.

The NBC Group is expected to change the name of Versus in the coming months, perhaps to the NBC all-sports channel that is in the works. Hockey is expected to be the primary resident of that network.

In Canada, both the CBC and TSN have NHL rights deals that expire in 2014.

It was just three months ago that Comcast Group completed a $30 billion US takeover of NBC/Universal. It now hopes hockey broadcasts can be one of its sporting kingpins south of the border.

For that to happen, Versus - or whatever they are going to call it - will need to be far more accessible than it is now.

mike.zeisberger@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/zeisberger


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