NBC's Strategy For Versus To Be Clear In Upcoming NHL Rights Negotiations
NBC has yet to detail where Versus “will fit in a post-merger world,” but an “early test of NBC's strategy could be in the rights negotiation for the NHL,” according to Stuart Levine of DAILY VARIETY. If NBC Sports Chair Dick Ebersol “wants to leverage Versus and another Comcast property, the Golf Channel, to take on ESPN, he'll have to make sure the NHL remains a key programming component.” The current deal with the league expires in June, and “both NBC and ESPN are expected to make bids.” Versus' current lineup “consists of a mix of outdoors shows, the Tour de France, college games and the NHL.” If Versus “decides to add more shows dedicated to the four major pro sports...there could be a shift in the programming philosophy.” The NHL will have to “decide whether it wants to remain on Versus and possibly earn a higher rights fee or potentially reach many more viewers on ESPN.” The NBC/Versus pitch to the NHL “is that hockey will continue to have a home both on cable and broadcast.” NBC “has made the Jan. 1 Winter Classic an annual event,” drawing a “record 4.5 million viewers” for this year’s broadcast. The Jan. 30 NHL All-Star Game “drew a network-record 1.5 million viewers” on Versus, and there is “little reason to believe the upcoming playoffs won't set new records as well for Versus.” NBC Sports Cable Group President Mark Lazarus said a deal should be done "in the front end of the summer." In a “shot clearly directed at ESPN,” Lazarus said, "We put our partners first, opposite of some of our competitors, who put their brands first. We truly believe in the value of relationships." Lazarus added that “Versus' place in NBC Sports could follow the lead of the Golf Channel, which now has a much larger presence in the Peacock's golf coverage.” Levine noted while hockey “promises to be the showcase sport over the next few months, Versus will also be offering plenty of Triple Crown horseracing coverage in May and June” (VARIETY.com, 4/4).