TV Faceoff for NHL

©iStockphoto.com / Photographer2222
©iStockphoto.com / Photographer2222
Posted: March 06, 2011

With the threat of a player lockout hanging over the National Football League season, a big winner could be professional hockey as the National Hockey League television rights gain cachet with ESPN and other networks fearful of a football-barren channel lineup.

And that may be the first big test for NBC Sports, which has assumed ownership and management control of Comcast Corp.'s 24-hour sports channel Versus, the current holder of the national TV rights for NHL games. Versus televises about 80 NHL games a year.

The TV-rights package expires at the end of this hockey season and the period for which Philadelphia-based Versus had an exclusive negotiating window to reach a deal closed in late January.

"If you look at the Versus website, what do you see?" asked Kevin Greenstein, editor in chief of the website Insidehockey.com. Mostly hockey, he answered. "It's pretty safe to say that the NHL is an important property for Versus," he said.

College football, UFC mixed-martial arts fighting, bull riding, and cycling also appear on Versus. But the cable channel's highest-watched show in its history was Game 3 of the Stanley Cup championships last June between the Blackhawks and the Flyers, which drew an average 3.6 million viewers, making Versus the most-watched cable channel in that slot on that night.

Keeping NHL games on Versus - which is available in 78.6 million homes, according to research firm SNL Kagan - seems central to the corporate plan for Comcast-controlled NBC Universal Inc. to transform Versus into more of a mainstream sports outlet.

Hockey games, for one, enable NBC to promote Versus on its NBC cable and TV channels and websites as it is doing with the Golf Channel, also a former Comcast cable channel that is now under NBC Universal ownership and management control.

But Versus could be hip-checked by the NHL, which has reportedly also talked with ESPN, Fox, and possibly Turner about the TV rights. The hockey league may have brought in other bidders to raise the price of the package and to possibly reach a deal with a cable network with a bigger audience.

Versus pays about $77.5 million a year for the NHL rights, according to the Street & Smith's Sports Business Journal, for the regular-season hockey games, playoff games, and two Stanley Cup finals games. NBC had the rights to the other finals games.

A spokeswoman for the NHL declined to comment.

Chris McCloskey, spokesman for NBC Sports, also declined comment. The NBC-TV network has a separate arrangement with the NHL. It broadcasts one NHL game a week on Sunday afternoons. The advertising revenue for the game is split between the NHL and NBC.

But it seems clear that NBC Sports would like to keep the NHL on Versus and NBC. Commenting last year, legendary NBC Sports head Dick Ebersol said, "There's been a tremendous spirit of working together across both sides to build a partnership, and I commend them for that. I certainly would like to see the NHL on NBC in the future."

Greenstein, of Insidehockey.com, said that in the past the NHL was interested in greater exposure on TV, but that in these contract talks he believes "it's all about money."

NHL is a special case when it comes to professional sports leagues because only about 5 percent of the NHL revenue comes from a national TV contract, much less than what the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball, and even NASCAR get from TV deals. Most hockey revenue comes from ticket sales and concessions from rabid fans.

ESPN has held the hockey-rights package in the past and the ESPN2 channel seemed like the "hockey channel" when it launched, so it wouldn't be a stretch for ESPN to make a hard run for NHL games, Greenstein said.

ESPN also has deep pockets. According to SNL Kagan, ESPN's revenue was almost $7 billion in 2010, while Versus revenue was a much more modest $330.8 million. ESPN earned a profit, based on cash flow, of $1.7 billion in 2010, and Versus lost $9.7 million, the firm said.

NHL officials may look favorably on ESPN because of the higher profile it could bring the sport, Greenstein said. Hockey doesn't get much chatter on ESPN sports talk shows because its games aren't viewed on the No. 1 sports cable network, he speculated. That could change if ESPN held hockey's TV rights, he said.

NBC Sports notes that it has broadcast NHL and Olympic hockey games that set viewership records. The Winter Classic at Heinz Field between the Capitals and the Penguins on Jan. 1 was the most-watched NHL regular-season game since 1975, NBC said.


Contact staff writer Bob Fernandez at 215-854-5897 or bob.fernandez@phillynews.com.

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