Sports Business: NBC Must Redefine Versus To Make the TV Deal Work

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Sports Business: NBC Must Redefine Versus To Make the TV Deal Work
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NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced Tuesday that the NHL would be sticking long-term with NBC Sports as its major broadcast partner

The deal is in the books. 10 years and a reported $2 billion over that span will keep the NHL television rights firmly within the NBC family.

By all objective measure, the NHL contract was paramount to keeping the Versus network alive.

"This is a perfect marriage with us," NBC Sports Group Chairman Dick Ebersol said during a joint press conference. "Nothing serves the NBC Sports Group better than the National Hockey League."

Good for NBC. For the league and its fans, however, the real question is whether the deal best serves the NHL and its viewers.

It doesn't.

Not yet.

For what few details have hit the press since the announcement was made Tuesday, it sounds like there are changes coming to Versus and NBC meant to broaden the NHL's reach among US viewers.

Those measures will work toward giving the NHL the kind of exposure the NFL and MLB already enjoy.

Outside of NBC and NHL offices, the deal has been met with lukewarm reception. The prevailing sentiment had been to give the deal to ESPN, by far the biggest sports network in the country.

With ESPN and ESPN 2, the league would have at least one or two weekly games broadcast on a channel included in every basic cable package in America. The NHL would be nicely positioned to fill the viewing void of potential NFL and NBA lockouts.

Which network should have landed the NHL deal?

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ESPN, pushing its own new product, would be forced to improve its pathetic coverage of the fourth-largest sport in the country.

However, Bettman and others seemed pleased to keep the current arrangement in place.

Now the parties involved will have to prove to skeptics (namely, their viewers) that they can push the sport better than ESPN would have.

That means most—or all—measures of the current programming format will have to go. Despite the obvious boost of broadcasting with ESPN, this deal can work and work well. To do so, NBC will have to take drastic steps—essentially, to erase the current version of the Versus network—and start from scratch.

The NHL has stated that its ratings have improved as much as 84 percent over the last four years. Imagine what that number might be if Versus was part of every basic cable package, or if half of those who have the channel knew where to find it.

Infiltrate Versus. Destroy it. Make it new.

 

What is Known

The partnership between the NHL, NBC and Versus is six years old. NBC and Versus have had exclusive rights in each season since the lockout, prior to which ESPN carried the major cable contract.

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Instead of competing for time with ESPN's multitude of programming, the NHL and its players will be the stars of a rebuilt and rebranded Versus.

The new deal is for 10 years and an estimated total of $200 billion, though neither figure has been publicly confirmed.

It becomes the biggest broadcast deal in the league's history, topping the $120 million ESPN paid each season from 1999-2004.

The biggest element of the new deal is the cost. The old contract, according to the LA Times, paid the league about $75 million per season. Broadcast and revenue rights were split between NBC and Versus, though NBC paid exactly none of the $75 million rights fees.

That gravy deal is over.

"Our run of not paying anything for a number of years is over with this deal," Ebersol said during the press conference. "We are paying a substantial part, not the majority."

NBC's contribution hasn't been confirmed to any dollar amount other than that it is not a majority share. Versus, then, figures to pay at least 26 percent more each season than is laid out under the expiring deal, and likely more. 

Also confirmed is a name change for Versus.

The change will happen sometime in the next three months, according to Ebersol, and is meant to identify Versus as a member of the NBC Sports Group.

Any tag including the name NBC would be a significant improvement over a brand that is currently associated with bull riding, fly fishing and home videos of drunken pratfall sports.

As for broadcasts, Versus will air 90 regular season games, 40 more per season than under the current deal.

All playoff games following the first round will be aired by one of the two networks, where games are currently split with local broadcasts.

NBC's coverage of Sunday games will begin with a Thanksgiving Friday game, grabbing up an open vacation day for most Americans that won't compete with the NFL on Thursday.

Also, the Winter Classic will continue under its current format for as long as NBC wants to have it.

It hasn't been specified whether NBC's Sunday broadcasts will begin regularly following the November opener or after the Winter Classic, as is the format now.

 

What Needs to Happen

Versus is part of NBC Universal, purchased not long ago by the cable juggernaut Comcast. Suffice to say, the network should never be short of funding.

Ideally, Versus would go from an obscure hunting and fishing channel which occasionally airs hockey games to the main sports hub of all NBC networks.

Fox's presence is marked with a number of regional Fox Sports (insert locale here) networks. ABC's sports arms fall under the ubiquitous ESPN brand.

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Currently, NBC has nothing commensurate to ESPN, or even the list of regional Fox Sports networks.

Versus, whatever it is called at the time, needs to become the lone, definite, "I've heard of that network" network to carry all of NBC's sports programming.

If they're listening, here are a few tips:

 

Sort of Sportscenter

They came close in introducing the daily line, but hip, satirical takeoffs of the ESPN mainstay won't cut it.

Versus needs to open up a program that will split off-hours rerun time with NHL Overtime. If NBC is committed to making Versus their centralized sports outlet, they need a show that covers highlights across all sports.

No need to be bashful about it—plagiarize Sportscenter for all its worth. Its one of the most successful cable programs in history.

At that, let the program take over daytime hours, and push the remnants of OLN to graveyard shift.

It would legitimize the new Versus as a strong sports network, and NBC will get the chance to push its own product by saturating the show with hockey coverage at the expense of other sports. Won't that be refreshing?

 

Hockey Central, NHL Overtime, & the Set

NHL Overtime is Versus' version of ESPN's NHL 2nite. With a new network built around the NHL, the show will have to greatly expand its coverage.

The show picked up broadcast time beginning with the playoffs, but didn't even exist until Versus needed something to quickly take over for The Daily Line.

The show needs to be a nightly fixture on the network, whether in the middle of the postseason or the middle of July. It needs expanded interviews, in-depth reporting, and a roundtable of respected hockey analysts to add to the strength of the brand.

And it needs a new set.

Versus introduced a new set a few months ago, in the middle of the NHL season. They use it for Hockey Central, their in-game broadcast hub, as well as NHL overtime. Both deserve something better.

The old set was nice—nothing special, but certainly befitting a national broadcast team. The shows now appear to be broadcast from inside Uncle Sam's top hat.

 

Broadcasters

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
The deal means the NHL Winter Classic will likely proceed under its current format.

The current broadcast teams for Versus and NBC aren't among the best. Those who aren't fans of the Washington Capitals or Geico probably aren't fans of Joe Beninati and Craig Laughlin. Good luck if your team is playing the Capitals during a Versus broadcast.

Having a pair of local broadcasters from any team in a national booth is a recipe for disaster. If Versus is to improve, they need a pair of dedicated play callers who will cover each game, in any city.

They would do well to poach old favorites Gary Thorne and Bill Clement.

Thorne and Clement were mainstays during ESPN's coverage of the league. Thorne covered the most recent World Junior tournament, and the pair can be heard by anyone who purchases a copy of EA's NHL video game franchise.

The pair is revered among hockey fans and would bring instant credibility to each Versus telecast.

Mike Emrick would likely stay on with NBC, and to no great protest. Emrick is an excellent play caller.

NBC's whole team isn't perfect. Watching Pierre McGuire and Mike Milbury stop just short of personally insulting each other during a staged intermission debate is five of the most painfully awkward minutes in television.

Small changes aside, the key to getting the broadcast teams right is getting Thorne and Clement under contract.

 

Reach

This is as simple as it gets. For the growth Versus has experienced, many people still do not have the network. Some of those who do can't find it.

If NBC wants to expand the reach of the game, Versus will have to become part of every basic cable package in America. Whatever it takes to make that happen, they will have to see that it does. There's no other way around making this deal work.

They'll also have to see that Versus is listed near ESPN, Fox Sports and others sports channels under every cable provider.

 

Everything Online Should Be Free

If NHL Gamecenter Live doesn't mind, NBC/Versus should provide live HD streams of every NHL game from their website.

And they should do so for free.

It's not a way to make money, but its certainly a way to grow interest in NHL teams beyond local broadcasts.

If interest is what the league and its networks are after—and today's press conference suggests that they are—the Internet is the best place to start.

Information from The LA Times, ESPN.com and USA Today was used in this report.

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