February 02, 2011
An NHL source told David Shoalts of the Globe & Mail that Comcast's takeover of NBC has made their relationships "complicated," and it's not hard to understand why: What were two different entities are now one, to the point where it's expected the VERSUS brand will cease to exist by next season, with the channel being reborn under an NBC Sports banner.
What complicates matters is that NBC happens to be the NHL's over-the-air carrier in the U.S., and now both of the league's American television broadcasters are owned by the same company. Both contracts expire at the end of this season.
NBC has its own window for exclusive negotiations with the NHL, and those talks are believed to be under way. Thus, the expiration of Versus's period to negotiate exclusively with the NHL does not mean the league is going to immediately throw its U.S. television rights up for bids from competing networks such as ESPN, which is supposed to have at least some interest.
Shoalts mentions the recent departure of VERSUS president Jamie Davis under NBC Sports Group reorganization as "complicating matters," but I don't see it that way at all.
Moving in to take over at VERSUS will be NBC Sports executive Jon Miller and producer Sam Flood. Not only is there comfort for the NHL in having dealt with these cats over at NBC for years, they're the type of innovators the cable channel's needed since the OLN days. Say, do you like the Winter Classic and the way it's presented on television? Because the event is Miller's baby and Flood's been the point man for the annual production since its inception. Their taking over of VERSUS is practically a carrot to the NHL to re-up with NBC and its cable arm.
Here's what commissioner Gary Bettman had to say about Comcast and NBC during his State of the NHL address:
I believe they closed the transaction last night at midnight and we will very shortly be in discussions and negotiations with our current partners, which are NBC and VERSUS, and they're now in the same place. So it will make things a little bit easier, hopefully.
Ah, but there's always the ESPN question lingering. Kevin Wheeler of KMOX in St. Louis sees nine teams in some sort of financial turmoil, and demands a return to ESPN as a way to help the league's bottom line:
Crawl back to ESPN on your hands and knees, offer to work out a revenue sharing deal that will get your games on ANY of their channels (even if it has to be "The Ocho") on multiple nights during the week and then pray they're willing to consider your plea.
Getting more games on national television in the States is huge, no doubt, but even more important is getting the powerful ESPN hype machine back on your side. Their ability to cross-promote, double-promote and triple-dog-promote is absolutely key to the NHL's future.
The league needs an infusion of cash, no doubt, but what they need more is to be relevant in the American sports scene. If ESPN mostly ignores you so will a lot of casual sports fans.
But how will ESPN ante up, and what will they ask for in return? Does hockey need the casual fan? And is ESPN a way to "convert" fans who simply aren't into hockey?