NBC Sports Group, NHL agree to blockbuster deal

Courtesy: Vancouver Sun

In what is to believed to be the biggest U.S. television deal in its history, the National Hockey League announced it would continue its relationship with NBC Sports and Versus with a whopping ten-year, $2 billion deal. The pact reflects the increased popularity of the sport, with the Winter Classic and the resurgence of teams like the New York Rangers and last year’s Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks. This year’s Winter Classic featuring the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins on New Year’s Day (delayed into primetime due to inclement weather) drew the highest rating for a regular-season NHL game in the U.S. in 36 years.

Both NBC Sports and Versus are part of the newly formed NBC Sports Group, thanks to Comcast’s 51 percent purchase in NBCUniversal. Comcast was owner of Versus.

As part of the new deal, Versus will now air 90 regular-season games, as opposed to 50 in the last deal; an annual NBC game on the Friday after Thanksgiving; the airing of the entire Stanley Cup Playoffs, with exclusivity kicking in at the start of the second round (Conference Semifinals); and Versus and NBC continue to share the Stanley Cup Final. NBC Sports Group also obtains digital rights across all platforms for the games it televises.

NBC continues its Game of the Week and its Winter Classic telecasts; Versus obtains rights to air Canada’s Heritage Classic Outdoor games, whose rights and those of the Winter Classic telecasts are retained by CBC.

The NHL Network (which is a part of most digital sports packages) will get a new studio out of the deal in Stanford, Conn., already home to several NBCUniversal-syndicated talk shows.

NBC acquired the broadcast rights to the NHL in 2004 via a revenue-sharing agreement with the league after the NHL decided against renewing its deal with ESPN and ABC, bringing hockey back to the network for the first time in nearly 30 years (and without Peter Puck, an animated feature who appeared between periods on NBC’s mid-1970’s telecasts.)

NHL games were absent from broadcast television from 1980 to 1993, when select regional games popped up on ABC. In 1995, Fox swiped up the puck (and made it glow) for its telecasts, before moving back to ABC in 2000, airing ESPN-produced games. NBC has been televising games since 2006 (the 2005 season was canceled due to the lockout.

Versus has been the home of the NHL since the 2005-06 season.

With increased ratings on both NBC and versus, the NHL was seeking an increased rights fee as opposed to NBC’s recent revenue-sharing agreement and Versus’ $75 million-a-year deal. Fox, Turner Sports, and Disney-owned ESPN were in the running, but Fox dropped out first, followed by Turner. ESPN actually matched the rights fee Comcast had offered, but decided to stick with the current rights holder.

While Comcast is celebrating its victory over Disney in the sports-rights battle, some media buyers and even some fans aren’t exactly partying. One buyer thought ESPN’s strong marketing machine would have brought in more exposure for the league, according to a story in Adweek. Some fans have also been clamoring for hockey to return to the Worldwide Leader In Sports. But at the end of the day, the new Comcast-NBC-Versus partnership would provide more advertising opportunities.

In addition, Versus is expected to be re-branded into a name that would incorporate the NBC Sports brand within ninety days, according to NBC Sports Group Chairman Dick Ebersol. Also, Comcast plans to launch another sports channel (which could be as simple as re-branding Universal Sports) in order to carry the extra hockey games.