Sports Business: NHL to Benefit from Versus-to-NBC Sports Network Makeover

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Sports Business: NHL to Benefit from Versus-to-NBC Sports Network Makeover
The NHL was widely panned for re-signing with NBC/Versus this April, a move that is beginning to pay dividends with the exposure that will come from NBC Sports Group's NFL and Olympic programming (photo courtesy Fox News).

NBC launched the first salvo of its campaign to re-brand the Versus network Monday, announcing that the channel will be renamed 'NBC Sports Network' effective January 2, 2012.

The move is consistent with the initial statement made by then-NBC Sports Group Chairman Dick Ebersol in April, when it was revealed that Versus would be folded into the NBC brand as part of the 10-year, $2 billion contract extension that kept the NHL's broadcast rights with NBC and Versus.

"This effort is a major step towards a complete strategic alignment of all our platforms and businesses," NBC Sports Group Chairman Mark Lazarus said of the move Monday. "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."

Any change to Versus deals first and foremost with the NHL, the network's biggest draw since 2006.

For the NHL, the makeover is a sign that the partnership with NBC will indeed strive to bring their product to a larger audience.

"I never had any regrets with the deal we had with NBC," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said of the deal this April. "As far as we're concerned it's one contract. They can whack it up any way they want."

"NBC Sports and Comcast have been fantastic partners. They have provided incredible coverage of our sport and have teamed with us to deliver the best TV viewership figures in three decades."

NHL hockey was the cornerstone programming of the old Versus network. The NHL reached its expiring deal with Versus following the 2005 lockout with what was then Outdoor Life Network, casting doubt that the league could ever recover from the work stoppage with its main national programming coming by way of the channel known for hunting and fishing programs.

In the years since, NHL ratings have increased steadily—better than 84 percent over the last four years, according to the Los Angeles Times. NBC announced record numbers for game seven of the Stanley Cup Finals this June, a 4.8 rating and 8 share, making it the most-watched hockey game in 37 years.

The work Bettman and Versus have done shows results, if nothing else. The extension struck in April was meant to continue on that success, and the end of the Versus moniker should be just the first of a number of coming improvements.

The new NBC Sports Network Logo, including a revised script and larger peacock logo (photo courtesy Yahoo).

In addition to the rebranding of the network, the NHL will benefit from an annual Thanksgiving Friday game (NBC), the continuation of the Winter Classic, 90 nationally televised regular season games broadcast on NBC Sports Network (up from 77) and 10 more on NBC, plus an improved position in the world of televised sports.

Part of the consolidation of the NBC Sports Group (under the umbrella of Comcast-NBC Universal) means repositioning the network among its competitors. While ESPN has become the standard bearer of cable sports programming, NBC may not aim to compete directly with the cable juggernaut.

Fox Sports has flourished by creating a network of regional sports channels that cater more closely to local markets than ESPN. While Fox Sports has no SportsCenter competitor to speak of, the regional approach has been very successful for Fox, if not as glamorous.

It hasn't become clear yet whether NBC Sports Network will be positioned to compete directly with ESPN. The current iteration of Versus reaches 70 million American homes, compared to 100 million for ESPN and ESPN2. Becoming a true competitor to ESPN is going to take time, and money.

Comcast, the largest cable company on the East Coast, certainly has the broadcast and monetary power needed to make such a push. Positioning NBC Sports Network closely to ESPN and Fox Sports will help drive awareness among viewers, who previously had to channel surf relentlessly to find the network, if they had it at all.

Finding NBC Sports Network in one's listings should prove no such problem. As the NBC Sports Group consolidates its eggs and begins cross-promotion of events across all networks, the NHL can only stand to benefit from the increased press.

The name change has been slated for January 2 of next year, the day of the Winter Classic. January 1 will be the final Sunday Night Football broadcast of the regular season, and commercials for the Winter Classic will be in heavy rotation. A week later, the wild card round of the NFL playoffs will appear on NBC.

And, as reported by Fox News, "Super Bowl XLVI, the most-watched program of the year, will provide an unprecedented opportunity for cross-promotion between NBC and the NBC Sports Network."

While the marketing push for NBC Sports Network will begin in earnest early next year, pieces are already falling into place for the NHL.

In addition to the 10-year deal struck this April and the announced name change, broadcasters Pierre McGuire, Dave Strader and Mike 'Doc' Emrick have been hired to cover the NHL for NBC Sports Network on a full-time basis.

For the first time since the 1990s, the NHL is entering a position to compete with the big three of American Sports.

"NBC Universal-Comcast is one of the most important, connected and wired media companies in the U.S.," said Bettman, "and as the potential of the NBC Sports Group is realized, the importance of our relationship will become more apparent to hockey fans and our business partners."

View James' April article on the NHL-NBC television deal here. Also, support his efforts at world domination at Slew Footers, or follow his hockey musings in 140-character form @slewfooters.
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