THE CANADIAN PRESS
The National Hockey League has opted to stick with NBC and Versus as its U.S. broadcasters in a 10-year deal reportedly worth about US$2 billion.
Neither commissioner Gary Bettman nor NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol gave financial terms of the contract, but various reports said it would bring in about $200 million per season.
Bettman called it "the most significant U.S. media rights partnership in the league’s history."
Versus currently pays about $75 million per year while NBC pays no rights fees but has a revenue sharing arrangement with the NHL.
"Our wonderful run of not paying anything for a number of years is over with this deal," said Ebersol.
He added that the Versus name will be changed within three months to one that will include NBC.
The NHL took some heat when it left ESPN in 2004 to sign with OLN, later was renamed Versus, which reaches far fewer homes and had far less cachet among sports fans than the top all-sports network in the U.S.
Just having NHL highlights and news featured on ESPN’s Sportscenter news show is considered a boost for any league looking to reach the American mainstream.
Versus averaged only 353,00 viewers for games, but that is up 19 per cent from last season.
Bettman said he had "no regrets" about going with NBC and Versus.
"When we looked at the entire package and the relationship it was clear to us we were going to be with the incumbent," said Bettman. "Everyone has enormous respect for ESPN.
"Six years ago we chose to go in a different direction for a variety of reasons and we believe it’s worked out well for us. Versus’ coverage of our game has been extraordinary and hockey fans and sports fans have found it and actually have been telling us they think the coverage is terrific. And I think it’s only going to get better."
The NHL still lags far behind other team sports in TV revenue. The NFL takes in more than $2 billion per year, while the NBA gets about $930 million per season.
Bettman said the league will benefit from the "synergies" offered by the recent acquisition of NBC Universal by cable company Comcast. The group now has 20 networks and more than 40 "digital platforms" that can either broadcast or promote hockey. They include the main NBC network, Versus and other channels that include regional sports networks.
The deal will see games on Versus jump from 50 to 90 per season. Versus will also exclusively air all conference final games, while for the final, NBC will have five games and Versus will show Games 3 and 4.
NBC will continue to show a game of the week as well as the annual Winter Classic and Hockey Day in America. It will introduce a national game on U.S. Thanksgiving Friday.
Versus will have a game of the week, the all-star game and will show any Heritage Classic games held in Canada.
Ebersol said hockey attracts a young, male demographic many advertisers want.
"We’re delighted," he said. "There is nothing that fits the NBC Sports Group better on all platforms than the NHL.
"Between the national cable rights, the broadcast rights, the digital rights, and the fact that the NHL is a significant part of some of our strongest RSNs, it brings a strength to that entire platform that nothing else can.
"It just means we have a commitment to hockey all year that we can sell across all these platforms. And after six years of experimentation, our free time is over and I’m happy it’s over because we’ve learned together."
ESPN reportedly stayed in the negotiations to the end, while FoxSports and Turner Broadcasting showed interest but opted to drop out.
"We had constructive conversations with the NHL and wish the league continued success," ESPN said in a statement.