SBD/April 20, 2011/Media

Bettman Calls 10-Year, $2B Deal With NBC/Versus League's "Most Significant" Yet

Bettman said that it was clear that NHL would remain on NBC, Versus
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman yesterday called the league's 10-year, $2B deal with NBC and Versus the "most significant" in league history, according to Ira Podell of the AP. Bettman said, "When we looked at the entire package and the relationship, it was clear we were going to stay with the incumbent. But it's nice to go out and find out you're pretty." He added, "I never had any regrets with the deal we had with NBC." Versus in the current contract "pays the NHL about $75 million per year but NBC doesn't pay at all because of a revenue-sharing agreement with the league." However, NBC Sports Group Chair Dick Ebersol said, "Our run of not paying anything for a number of years is over with this deal. We are paying a substantial part, not the majority." Ebersol added that Versus' name "will be changed within 90 days to better reflect its association with NBC" (AP, 4/19). In N.Y., Richard Sandomir reports the "bulk" of the $2B "will be paid by Versus, which gets most of its revenue from subscriber fees." ESPN "offered about 15 to 20 percent less than NBC and Versus." ESPN Exec VP/Content John Skipper said, "They've done a lot of good and smart things, like the Winter Classic and their experimentation with the All-Star Game. We think the value has appreciated and the sport has done very well." Sandomir notes if NBC and Versus have "scheduling conflicts, some playoff games before the Stanley Cup finals could be seen on other networks within the NBC Sports Group." Ebersol "would not say which channels were being considered." He also did not comment "on the coming Olympic bid," but he said Comcast Chair & CEO Brian Roberts and NBCUniversal President & CEO Steve Burke "are looking to make sure that every aspect has been evaluated, that we're going to make money." Ebersol: "I don't ever believe that I'm going to be let out of the building unless we can show them we're going to make money" (N.Y. TIMES, 4/20). Ebersol added that Roberts and Burke are "completely accessible and willing to go after sports deals provided money can be made" (CABLEFAX DAILY, 4/20).

GROWTH SPURT: The WALL STREET JOURNAL's Futterman & Schechner write the NHL renewal is "part of an aggressive push by NBCUniversal since it was taken over by Comcast earlier this year to secure top-tier sports rights and use them to feed both its broadcast and cable channels." Ebersol said the "most important" element of the NHL deal is the "exclusivity." NHL COO John Collins said that the league is "placing its faith in Mr. Ebersol's ability to use the power of NBC Sports, known for its coverage of the NFL, the Olympics and Notre Dame football, to build another top sports cable channel." Collins said, "We believe they're going to do things differently and make their coverage more consistent with the way NBC Sports operates" (WALL STREET JOURNAL, 4/20). The GLOBE & MAIL's Bruce Dowbiggin reported NBC and Comcast are "promising to make over hockey's image as its prime sports tenant on Versus (soon to be renamed NBC Sports Channel) and a significant force on the main network." Sources said that NBC and the league are "looking to create a 'March Madness' style promotion of the playoffs on both NBC and its [new] sports cable channel." They also will "extend the reach of the NHL's Winter Classic" (GLOBESPORTS.com, 4/19). Bloomberg TV's Michelle Steele said, "Advertisers and marketers have been wanting a stronger competitor to ESPN in Versus and some speculate that retaining the NHL's rights, rebranding Versus and spending this kind of money means that NBC Sports is going to give ESPN a serious challenge." But Ebersol said, "We're not going after ESPN. ESPN's a place where all the rest of us could only dream to be. Whatever deals we have we'll bring our own intensity and passion to, but the ability to operate over so many different areas and with their long headstart over anybody else, I'm certain that they'll be a gold standard for all of us to follow for years to come" ("Inside Track," Bloomberg TV, 4/20).

LOSS OF EXPOSURE?
In Toronto, Damien Cox writes, "There will be many, of course, who will wonder if a deal with powerful ESPN, even if it was for less money, would make more sense for the exposure-needy NHL" (TORONTO STAR, 4/20). A media agency exec "who handles business for a blue-chip NHL sponsor" expressed "disappointment that ESPN could not close the new deal, noting that the exposure afforded by ESPN's 100 million+ subscriber footprint would balance out the inevitable jump in unit pricing." The exec: "Not only would it get hockey back on 'SportsCenter,' but you know ESPN would go all out with their playoff coverage. When you think about all the shoulder programming and feature packages they would have put together ... it just feels like a lost opportunity" (ADWEEK.com, 4/19). In St. Louis, Jeff Gordon writes, "Like it or not, ESPN drives the sports conversation in this country. ... The NHL would have been a secondary property for ESPN. It would have been relegated to the kids table. But it would have been part of the family, which has value" (ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH, 4/20). In Toronto, Mike Zeisberger writes by "passing over ESPN in favour of the NBC Group, the league has made the decision not to go with the carrier that, let's face it, would have made it much easier and been more readily available for fans across America to watch hockey" (TORONTO SUN, 4/20). In Columbus, Bob Hunter wrote, "ESPN still seems like a better vehicle than NBC-Versus to take the NHL into the sports mainstream" (COLUMBUS DISPATCH, 4/20). The TORONTO SUN's Rob Longley: "The money and term the NHL gets from this deal ... will ease some concerns around the league and will make NHL commissioner Gary Bettman a popular guy with many of his owners. But for a league crying out for exposure, it still has work to do" (TORONTOSUN.com, 4/19).

BIG FISH, SMALLER POND
: The GLOBE & MAIL's Dowbiggin wrote while the deal "represents only an annual $6.6-million per team, finally getting paid for a network deal marks a major triumph" for Bettman, "who spurned ESPN after the 2004-'05 lockout and has stuck with NBC and Comcast despite criticism of the household reach of Versus" (GLOBESPORTS.com, 4/19). Bettman said, "Everybody has enormous respect for ESPN. Six years ago we decided to go in a different direction, for a variety of reasons, and it has worked well for us. This for us is a great place to be. Versus' coverage of our game has been extraordinary. Hockey fans have found it and have been telling us on a regular basis that the coverage is terrific, and I think it's going to get better" (ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH, 4/20). Ebersol addressed the "notion that every sport benefits from having ESPN as a major carrier," saying, "I think that sometimes you benefit by being the only child." Navigate Marketing President AJ Maestas "called the new contract 'excellent' for the NHL and echoed Ebersol -- that it's not always best to be a small fish in a big pond" (L.A. TIMES, 4/20). USA TODAY's Michael Hiestand writes, "At least the NHL is the teacher's pet on Versus ... rather than to have to try to stand out among all the NBA, big-time college basketball and MLB games on ESPN" (USA TODAY, 4/20). In DC, Ryan Cooper wrote, "You can't tell me the NHL would have been better off taking less money to get two games a week on ESPN2. ... The NHL doesn't need ESPN any longer to be 'relevant'" (WASHINGTONPOST.com, 4/19). USA TODAY's Kevin Allen: "ESPN, with many sports to juggle, truthfully wouldn't have given the NHL the level of attention that the league is now receiving on Versus" (USA TODAY, 4/20).
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NHL, NBC, Versus, Media, Hockey, Comcast Corp.

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