Versus Bolsters Exclusivities Under New $2 Billion NHL Deal

In its first rights deal under Comcast's watch, NBC Sports Group has put a 10-year contract with the National Hockey League in the back of the net.

The deal, valued at around $2 billion ensures that NBC and Versus will remain the national U.S. TV homes of the puck sport into the next decade.

The incumbents, who have also secured digital rights including game streaming,  will combine on some 100 regular-season contests, including game of the week telecasts for both networks. More importantly, the teammates, joined by Comcast's control of a 51% stake in NBC Universal, will have exclusivity through the final three rounds of the playoffs.

Versus will air up to 24 of the 28 games in the conference semifinals, with the balance on NBC. Where there are scheduling conflicts, an undisclosed NBCU cable network will step onto the ice.

Previously, regional sports networks, which will continue to air games in the opening round of the postseason, had some non-exclusive rights during that second round of the playoffs.

Corporately, the change transfers rights from Comcast-owned RSNs that carry hockey to its national platforms. It also closes valuable postseason windows for RSNs under the Fox Sports aegis and others run by MSG Media and DirecTV Sports.

Under the contract that expires at the conclusion of the current campaign, Versus has been paying an average of $77 million per season, while NBC has operated with a revenue-sharing arrangement. NBC will be paying a rights fee under the new deal, although Versus will handle most of the rights outlay.

The question now is whether the NBC Sports Group's first rights agreement under Comcast is a harbinger of things to come -- the bidding for the Olympic Games is expected in June and the Pac 12 is looking to build its own college sports network. Comcast systems match up relatively well with the conference's footprint along that coast.

With the pact, the NHL continues its momentum, following the shutout of the 2004-05 season by a labor dispute. During the summer of 2005, then incumbent ESPN/ABC, which had paid an average of $120 million from 1999-2004, iced their deal, opening the way for the Comcast service then known as Outdoor Life Network to skate in and scoop up a three-year deal, which was subsequently renewed and concludes this June.

Since then, Versus has lit the Nielsen lamp with some of the game's best-ever cable marks. NBC has scored well with the Winter Classic on New Year's Day, with the 2011 contest ranking as the top regular-season audience for the sport in 36 years, and Game 6 of the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals marked the largest NHL audience ever in the U.S.

The NHL has bolstered its sponsorship base and the sport has become an effective vehicle to reach young males.

To that end, Dick Ebersol, chairman of the NBC Sports Group, touted the sports appeal to advertisers, during a conference call announcing the new rights deal. "We have the market power we need, for Madison Avenue for advertising."

He noted that with the various broadcast and cable exclusivities, the NBC Sports Group offers "one-stop shopping" with the NHL.

The agreement, described during the conference call by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman as the " most significant U.S. media deal we have been able to participate in," was also fueled by the incumbent's interest in retaining the rights, which have lifted Versus' ratings and distribution, as well as bids by ESPN and Turner. Fox, whose RSNs provide the majority of the NHL's regular season coverage, also expressed preliminary interest in a sport it formerly carried on its broadcast network.

After icing its bid, Turner president of sales, distribution and sports David Levy said, "We are disciplined in our approach to negotiating sports rights and are committed to providing quality programming that matters to our audience, advertisers and distribution partners. We think the NHL is an attractive property, but we could not come up with a business model that served our interests."

The gambit would have included airings for TruTV, the male-skewing network that entered the live sports fray with its coverage of "March Madness," as part of Turner Sports and CBS's 14-year, $10.8 billion rights deal with the NCAA for the Men's Division I Basketball Championship.

ESPN was also in the fray, reportedly making a play for a game of the week package. ESPN said it had "constructive conversations" with the NHL. As is its wont, ESPN proffered the league exposure across its myriad platforms, including authentication for broadband and mobile devices.

As for the winners, NBC will continue to broadcast a national "Game of the Week," along with its coverage of the NHL Winter Classic and "Hockey Day in America."

Versus also will telecast an exclusive national "Game of the Week," as well as NHL Premiere Games, NHL Faceoff, the NHL All-Star Game and any future NHL Heritage Classic outdoor games in Canada. The linemates remain the exclusive home of the Stanley Cup Final, with Versus airing Games 3 and 4, and NBC the rest. The NBC Sports Group will also build a new studio for NHL Network at its existing facility in Stamford, Conn.

NBC and Versus also have digital streaming rights to the games they televise. During the current contract, Versus has elected not to stream its contests.