It's the largest TV deal in the history of the NHL, and as officially announced on Tuesday afternoon, NBC Sports Group will pay $2 billion over the next 10-years to retain the rights to hockey on American television. The deal is in effect until the 2020-21 season.
For hockey fans in the United States, it's essentially the status quo. Versus, now part of that NBC Sports Group after their parent company, Comcast, purchased NBC Universal, will still be the national cable home of the NHL, while NBC will remain the broadcast home of the league.
There are some changes, though. One might call them improvements.
Among them, Versus and NBC will each add NHL games to their schedule. In terms of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Versus and NBC will now begin exclusive coverage in the Conference Semifinals, not the Conference Finals as was previously the case. Local networks will no longer have rights to those second-round games, so if your team advances, you better get used to those national broadcasters.
If you're an out-of-market hockey fan, NBC and Versus will now cover every single playoff game on a national level, so the days of missing out on a first round game because your team isn't a desirable ratings draw seem to be over. NBC Sports chief Dick Ebersol promised that every playoff game would be broadcast on a "major, national NBC Universal cable channel," implying that NBC-Comcast networks other than Versus could broadcast playoff games.
Versus will still hold a portion of the Stanley Cup Final, shared with NBC, while they'll continue to broadcast the NHL All-Star Game, the NHL Premiere games in Europe at the start of the season and the Heritage Classic. They'll also broadcast even more typical regular season games -- 100 per season, according to the announcement. That's roughly three per week.
NBC will broadcast even more hockey as well, starting with a new game on the Friday after Thanksgiving.
NBC/Versus fought off bids from Fox, Turner and ESPN, with the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports reportedly dropping out at the end of the negotiations. The ESPN offer reportedly consisted of one nationally televised game per week on ESPN2, so in comparison to what Versus currently brings in terms of coverage, ESPN wasn't willing to go very far.
For NBC, there's no doubt about the motivation here, and it's easy to understand the hefty price they're paying. They're planning on changing the Versus brand to sync up with the NBC brand "within 90 days" with the ultimate goal of forming a challenger to ESPN, the obvious leader in the sports TV field.
If they were to lose their most valuable property in the NHL, they would have been stuck with some college rights deals and some MMA stuff. With all due respect to those properties, that's not really the best foundation on which to build a sports TV empire. If you can't keep the party guests you already have, can you really send out more invitations?
Why would the NHL turn down the exposure that ESPN could bring, though? There's no doubt that ESPN controls the sports consciousness of the American sports fan, and there's also no doubt that they're not interested in promoting a product they don't have their hand in.
But the NHL is in on the ground floor of whatever this new NBC Sports powerhouse is building. If it turns into a smashing success, the NHL will be the top dog, as opposed to the fourth of fifth dog (behind poker and Scrabble, respectively) at ESPN.
To use a hockey analogy, the NHL is the Alex Ovechkin or the Sidney Crosby that NBC Sports drafted and hopes to build around at Versus. Whether that team wins a Stanley Cup is yet to be seen, but there's a lot to like.