The FCC and the Justice Department today each approved the proposed merger of Comcast and NBC Universal clearing the way for the final completion of a deal that's been in the works for over two years.
It could be done by the end of the month, even, and no matter what your opinion is on the controversial combination of two of America's largest media companies, there's no doubt this move will have a big impact on sports television in general.
Specifically, it's going to have a major impact on the NHL's television future. Comcast has made no bones about it's intention to use the NBC Sports brand to create a rival to the market leader, ESPN.
This still-relevant Richard Sandomir story from the New York Times in December 2009 explains how NBC and Comcast plan to use their collective power to turn Versus into a legitimate challenger to Bristol, Connecticut's best-known residents.
Long story short: NBC Sports and Dick Ebersol will take control of Versus (as well as Comcast's Golf Channel). They'll change the name to a more recognizable NBC brand, use more NBC talent and most importantly, they'll pump money into the network that will allow it to challenge ESPN for television rights deals.
The NHL, of course, is in on the ground floor.
After the lockout in 2004, ESPN wanted nothing to do with the NHL, so without much bargaining room of their own, the League signed on to a national TV deal with Outdoor Life Network, which was, needless to say, slightly embarrassing. Now, a little more than six years later, the NHL is growing and they've helped turn OLN into Versus, a not-well-known but now at least respectable sports destination.
ESPN knows all of this. They know that the NHL is growing and that it's beginning to turn into a product that sports fans want to watch. They know that this NBC-Comcast merger will be complete eventually, and they know that with this, Versus will be able to draw rights deals away from them.
The first salvo in this soon-to-come war between the two parties? It's hockey. The NHL's rights deals with NBC and Versus are up at the end of this year, and ESPN has made no secret of the fact that they want in. Easy to understand why.
But if the NHL sticks with Versus, or whatever the hell it will be called next year, they'll be ensured something that ESPN cannot give them. While the Worldwide Leader's lineup is crowded with the NFL, NBA, MLB, NASCAR and more, Versus will still be without many of those properties. They'll have the NHL, though, where it will still be the premiere product on the network.
The NHL will become the foundation for whatever Ebersol, NBC and Comcast hope to build at Versus, and with that, the League will be in a very enviable position.