April 28, 2011
The ink's dried on the NHL's $2 billion, 10-year deal with NBC, and the general opinion from pundits is that it's a winner. It may even be as far-reaching as to influence the NHL to return to the Olympics for the 2014 Sochi Games, should NBC win the bid.
There's still a segment of fans and media, despite compelling arguments to the contrary, that believe ESPN would have been the better destination for the NHL's U.S. television contract.
John Ourand of Sports Business Journal had a piece this week that detailed the NHL's negotiating process with NBC, ESPN, Turner and FOX. In it, we get some interesting details on what the WWL was offering the League as a television partner. Here's Ourand, writing about Gary Bettman and Comcast's Brian Roberts:
Though the two are friends, Bettman had a tough message to deliver: Days earlier, ESPN told the league that it would make an aggressive bid on the NHL's media package. Bettman told Roberts that ESPN's planned bid of $160 million to $170 million per year would test NBC's and Versus' right-to-match clause, which several media executives described as the tightest such clause they had ever seen. The clause gave NBC the right to match any deal the NHL signed with another network.
But it would be hard for NBC to match ESPN's planned offer. ESPN told the NHL that it would televise every Stanley Cup playoff game nationally. ESPN said that it would stream the games to authenticated broadband and mobile users. And ESPN guaranteed an international component as part of its planned offer. ESPN's deal would include a regular-season Game of the Week, but it was not making the broadcast network ABC available. The details were new for Roberts, who did not want to lose the NHL. In early discussions with the league, the NBC Sports Group had resisted the idea of televising every Stanley Cup playoff game nationally. And Comcast could not match ESPN's streaming plans or international offerings.
Comcast/NBC's reaction? The deal that was eventually agreed upon that gave the NHL 100 broadcasting "windows" on NBC and whatever VERSUS will become and a nationally televised game the day after Thanksgiving.
SBJ reports that the NHL never went back to ESPN for a counteroffer, nor did ESPN ever submit a formal proposal.
Again, there were virtues to hitching the wagon to ESPN: There's no question the post-lockout product on the ice, the current crop of stars and the growing audience all position the NHL to be more palatable to the ESPN marketing machine than in their previous contract. It's still a network that drives the conversation for a large segment of fans that aren't (yet) watching hockey.
But it's clear that for what the NHL wanted out of this network contract, NBC was able to provide it — if not the ESPN casual fan seal of approval.