Puck Daddy - NHL

Not a good week for puckheads with DirecTV, which continues to keep the Versus network off of its system in a negotiating standoff that's now in its seventh week.

Last night's upset by the Buffalo Sabres over the Detroit Red Wings was unavailable to DTV subscribers in both hockey-mad cities. More tragically, the Chicago Blackhawks' comeback win over the Calgary Flames on Monday -- one of the greatest regular-season rallies in NHL history -- was invisible for the DirecTV viewership.

The latter blackout had Mark Kiley from Blackhawks Confidential super steamed:

Not only did I not have the option to watch the game, neither did 18 million other DirecTV subscribers.  Way to sell the game Bettman.  You're a frickin' genius.  The pressure you have applied to both Comcast and DirecTV to negotiate a compromise has produced what so far?  Nothing.  Once again selling the NHL is nothing more than an afterthought on the American sports landscape.

Why has Bettman not at least pulled the exclusive rights from Versus?  Surely, he didn't enter into agreement that gave him no outs if the NHL audience shrunk by 18 million.  Bettman should pull the exclusive rights deal and allow the clubs local broadcasters to televise the games as well.  Doing so would also free up the NHL network to air classic contests such as last night's Hawks-Flames game.

Yes, pull the exclusive rights from the only cable network willing to ante up massive coin for the NHL, and in the process break that contract -- one assumes there isn't an "out" clause for a situation like this -- to appease a sliver of the television audience, while undercutting Versus for the rest of the hockey viewing public. Now that's "frickin' genius."

This isn't to say that the dispute isn't a massive headache for the League, because it is. There's some hope between the sides, which is good news. But some other developments with Versus and Comcast are even better news for Bettman and his much-maligned U.S. TV deal. Could his gamble actually pay off?

Know this: DirecTV and Versus are talking. This is good news in a negotiation that's been anything but harmonious.

The bad news is that DirecTV continues to muddy the waters in this dispute by claiming that Versus is asking for an untenable rate hike; which is a statement that's picked up by local media whenever this dispute hits home. As we reported exclusively this month, Versus has a "zero total dollar increase" proposal on the table that apparently hasn't greased the gears to end this standoff -- even if it rendered the DirecTV "rate hike" outrage moot.

What's the solution in the short-term? Taking away exclusivity for live games from Versus is a non-starter, but Stu Hackel of the New York Times offers this idea:

If the league wants to help its fans here, the least it could do would be to run the Versus games delayed on the NHL Network in the scheduled spot where it replays games from the previous night.

Those slots are very early morning and the afternoon and it wouldn't be a solution, but the games wouldn't be live and probably wouldn't violate any exclusivity agreements with Versus. Viewers could at least record the games and watch at their convenience, which is better than nothing for now and would be a gesture to fans from a league that could do a little bit better here.

Not a bad thought, even if watching moldy games on cable in an Internet world may be more about an olive branch than something to which fans would flock.

You know what fans do flock to? The NFL. The Olympics. College football. Big-time golf events. Say, doesn't NBC have those relationships? Comcast, the parent company for Versus, knows it does, which is why it's sniffing around a purchase of NBC Universal. From the Wall Street Journal:

Versus is in 75 million homes and averaged 125,000 viewers this year through Oct. 4, up 17% from a year earlier, according estimates from Nielsen Co. "We have a huge opportunity," [Comcast exec Jeff] Shell said of Versus at the June marketing conference in New York, to create "another sports brand in America," he said. Still, Versus's average number of viewers is less than a seventh of ESPN's, and just over a third of that on ESPN2.

Winning new sports rights would cost money on top of NBC Universal's already hefty commitments, including more than $600 million a year for its NFL games, and the $2 billion it has committed for the next two Olympics. Many packages of rights are already locked up for years.

But size could bring other advantages. College-sports conferences, in particular, want deals that cover multiple outlets to air more of their events. ESPN has been most able to do so, for instance, putting one game on ABC and another on ESPN2.

Indeed. Versus would, in theory, receive bigger-time college football and the Olympic spillover that networks like CNBC receive from the parent network.

While the NFL's Sunday Night Football games would certainly remain on NBC, there would be a chance to bring the network's personalities and some semblance of NFL coverage to Versus as well.

When Bettman and the NHL chose OLN and Comcast as their cable partner after the lockout, it was because they were willing to pay significant rights fees for hockey -- much higher than what ESPN was offering. But it was also a wager that Comcast could add significant properties to the network in order to challenge ESPN's dominance on cable. It didn't land Major League Baseball. It didn't land the NFL. But college football, cage-fighting and Indy racing were incremental steps; joining the NBC family, and adding the NFL and the Olympics, would be a massive leap towards that goal.

There are always going to be those who say the NHL needs to be back on ESPN, and we've edged off the fence to agree with them. Should this deal between Comcast and NBC happen, it certainly changes the dynamic in that argument and, barring the end results, would validate Bettman's gamble on the fledgling cable net.

Hey: Color us optimistic on this one. You gotta have hope. Puck Buddy Lukes O. did about the DirecTV/Versus mess, and look what happened:

I am a university student in Pennsylvania that lives on campus. In our dorms we have a unique Direct TV package. We don't have a box in each room, we just plug into the wall. This morning to my surprise I put on Versus just to see if anything had changed and in fact it has, Versus was back on.

What's an education without Sports Soup and extreme fishing, right?

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