NHL Stakes Future with NBC and Slams Door on ESPN in New TV Deal

Tim KingCorrespondent IApril 20, 2011

NEW YORK - AUGUST 09:  Chairman of NBC Universal Sports & Olympics Dick Ebersol attends the premiere of 'The Tillman Story' presented by The Weinstein Company and A&E IndieFilms at MOMA on August 9, 2010 in New York City.  (Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for the Weinstein Company)
Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

That giant deflating sound that you heard yesterday afternoon was all of the air being let out of the ESPN balloon all at once.

For once, the boys in Bristol didn't put a contract in the win column.

Try as it might, including throwing a large amount of potential cash at the NHL for the short-term goal of plugging the giant hole in next year's broadcast schedule, ESPN finds itself on the outside and looking in at the hockey world, not just next year but for the next decade.

The NHL and NBC Universal announced on Tuesday that both parties had agreed to a 10-year deal to broadcast 100 NHL games nationally next year with a base price tag of $200 million.

It is the longest deal between a professional sports league and TV network in history.

The move means that all playoff games past the first round will be televised on a national basis and that all games of the Stanley Cup Finals will appear on broadcast TV. The deal also cements the Winter Classic in place on New Year's Day. 

As a result of the move, Versus will be renamed in the next several weeks and the league will get a permanent TV studio on NBC's Stamford, Conn. campus. The studio will not be ready until next season, but will be shared across the entire video platform.

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The announcement is a bitter pill for ESPN to swallow. The network had been hoping to combine the experience of its TSN subsidiary with its household reach south of the border, filling three of its networks with NHL coverage. 

It had been hoping that the superior reach of its product, along with the lack of competition from the NBA at least next year, might be enough to bring hockey back for the first time since early this century.

But the NHL did not feel that it had enough assurances that it would not be squeezed out if the NBA returned from its 2011-12 lockout largely intact to throw away the working relationship that it has fostered with NBC since it returned from its own contract Armageddon. 

ESPN did little to assure the league that such was the case and had suggested tampering with the date of the Winter Classic, just to add to the league's trepidation. 

At least one outsider thinks that the NHL did the right thing. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who once nearly bought the Pittsburgh Penguins, says that the NHL did the right thing in keeping its broadcasts right where they are.

Cuban, who would love a chunk of the post-lockout NBA for his HDNet outlet, said, "No league ever got rich off of ESPN."  

The news also means that ESPN has a major problem staring it in the face in the not too distant future. Now it has lost the battle with the NHL, it could find itself with acres of unsold airtime through the second half of 2011 and into 2012. That the NBA is going dark next year is as close to a certainty as there is in the sporting landscape these days and there are no guarantees that the NFL will be around either. 

Sure, ESPN will will the time with soccer games or poker, but it already can't sell the advertising inventory both already come with and has already saturated the market for college basketball and college football. There isn't anyone out there interested who isn't already advertising there.

The NHL was their ticket out of near term financial purgatory and they didn't get it.

So what does NBC get? A hundred nights of programming at a fixed cost for the next decade; programming that can also drive business on a multitude of streaming platforms for that entire time for little additional cost.

In an era when good TV isn't dying because of bad ratings but because of huge costs for cast and crew, this is a bigger win than those outside of the industry may be able to comprehend. 

So, the NHL gets to have its cake and eat it too in the end. Its main competitor won't be around next winter and its TV partner is actually interested in growing the game, not plugging a huge hole in its schedule. 

I think I just heard a goal horn in the distance.