NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazerus announced late Sunday that VERSUS, the Comcast-owned sports network that's been considered a second-tier channel for much of its existence, will take a major step in heightening that profile.
The network will be renamed the "NBC Sports Network" on January 2, 2012 as part of the new corporate synergy between sports properties owned by Comcast and those that make up the NBC Sports family.
"This effort is a major step towards a complete strategic alignment of all our platforms and businesses," NBC Sports Group Chairman Mark Lazarus said. "This is more than just a name change for VERSUS. It's a complete repositioning of the brand to provide value for marketers, consumers as well as all our affiliates and distributors. We want anyone who comes into contact with any of our assets to immediately connect with the NBC Sports brand promise."
We've already seen this "re-positioning" of the NBC Sports brand in the time since Comcast and NBC Universal completed a merger in January. The Golf Channel, a Comcast property, has taken over NBC golf broadcasts, using the same graphics package and branding them as "Golf Channel on NBC."
Throughout the NHL playoffs, the combination of resources between VERSUS and NBC was evident, as were the constant reminders that "VERSUS is now a member of the NBC Sports Group."
The timing of the re-branding isn't a coincidence. NBC's coverage of the NHL's Winter Classic is that day, with an all-but-confirmed 1 p.m. ET puck drop between the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers at Citizens Bank Park, the home of MLB's Phillies.
The NHL is VERSUS' biggest asset, obviously, and this move means quite a bit for the league (and frankly, the sport) in the United States.
For starters, this means that that Winter Classic will indeed be happening between the Flyers and Rangers. The hold up on an official announcement, and thus ticketing information and everything else, has been reported as a disagreement between the ballpark and the NHL on the fee to use the stadium.
More importantly, though, this news is more important for the future of the league.
The NHL just signed a huge deal with NBC and VERSUS that will keep hockey on the networks for the next decade. Gary Bettman and Co. certainly took into consideration the fact that NBC would be making a concerted effort to turn VERSUS into a legitimate competitor for ESPN, and this re-branding is the first step towards that.
The NHL is a major part -- the major part, even -- of NBC Sports Network, and that's something we really should be excited about. NBC and Comcast have a lot of freakin' money, you know? As we argued back in April:
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.
Let's use an example. NBC will broadcast its final "Sunday Night Football" of the NFL's regular season on January 1. On January 7, they'll televise an NFL playoff game. The Super Bowl is also on NBC this year in early February.
Our argument was that this new NBC/VERSUS TV deal was a good thing for the NHL because they'll be treated like a first-class citizen by the company, unlike how they'd be treated by ESPN, and they'll be promoted across Comcast/NBC's vast swath of networks like a star student by an overly excited parent. Bumper stickers on the Dodge Caravan and stuff.
Now, as the name is set to change and the new NBC Sports Network is set to be promoted all over the NFL playoffs and the freakin' Super Bowl, the NHL will, quite directly, be promoted front and center before the largest sports audience American TV has to offer.
All the indications are that this NBC deal is going to seriously pay off for hockey over the next 10 years. This is just the latest reminder.