NBC Sports Group Doles Out $2B for NHL Rights, Versus Rebranding on Horizon

The NHL’s long journey back to significance following the devastating 2004-05 lockout seems to have come to an end. The league has announced a blockbuster 10-year, $2 billion media-rights deal with NBC Sports Group. The agreement covers the digital rights across all platforms and devices for games televised by NBC and Versus.

“There is absolutely nothing that fits the NBC Sports Group better on all platforms than the NHL,” said NBC Sports Group Chairman Dick Ebersol at a press conference Tuesday. “That is because of the national rights, broadcast rights, and digital rights, as well as [the fact that] the NHL is a significant part of several of our RSNs.”

Big Ratings Lead to Riches
The $2 billion (according to Sports Business Journal) agreement follows an 84% rise in U.S. ratings over the past four years and more than doubles the NHL’s previous rights pacts with Versus ($77.5 million per year) and NBC (a revenue-sharing arrangement with no rights fee). Both Versus and NBC now fall under the umbrella of NBC Sports Group, following Comcast’s acquisition of NBC Universal earlier this year.

NBC Sports Group reportedly beat out Fox, Turner, and ESPN in negotiations for the NHL rights. The agreement dwarfs the NHL’s previous high for a media-rights deal, which was a $120 million-per-year agreement with ESPN covering 1999-2004.

“This is the most significant media deal that this league has ever been able to participate in,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “We couldn’t be more pleased and excited about this opportunity.”

Versus To Get New Name
During the press conference, Ebersol also announced that the group is no more than 90 days away from renaming the Versus network and that the new name will “somehow have a strong utilization of the word NBC.”

Exclusivity Is Key in Playoffs
The deal is highlighted by the first-ever national distribution of every Stanley Cup Playoffs game, including, for the first time, exclusive coverage starting with the conference semifinals. The first-round games will continue to air locally on teams’ RSNs, but every game from the conference semis on will air exclusively on NBC or Versus.

In addition, Ebersol said that other national NBC networks will carry a handful of playoff games where “scheduling anomalies exist,” but he would not disclose the specific networks.

“[Starting with] the second round of the playoffs, all games are now exclusively on NBC and Versus,” he added. “The RSNs won’t be there anymore.”

Post-Turkey Day Faceoff
The agreement also calls for the NBC Sports Group to televise 100 regular-season games per year and introduces a national NBC broadcast on the Friday after Thanksgiving. According to Ebersol, all of those games will be exclusive telecasts and/or will take place in exclusive NHL windows when no other games are taking place.

NBC will continue to broadcast a national Game of the Week, the NHL Winter Classic, and Hockey Day in America. Versus also will telecast an exclusive national Game of the Week, as well as NHL Premiere Games, NHL Faceoff, the NHL All-Star Game, and any future NHL Heritage Classic outdoor games in Canada.

The NBC Sports Group’s commitment also includes building a new studio for NHL Network at its existing facility in Stamford, CT.

Sam Flood in the Driver’s Seat
NBC Sports Group Executive Producer Sam Flood will continue to oversee production for the NHL on NBC, Versus, and other NBC networks.

“[Flood] is the centerpiece of our passion for hockey,” Ebersol said. “From the day that he took over the production of hockey on NBC, he has literally changed the way that the game is seen in the United States, most visibly with ‘Inside the Glass’ [rink-side reporting]. He has made hockey on television the most intimately produced event among all the major professional sports.”

Less than three months into the formation of NBC Sports Group, Flood and company have already begun integrating the NBC Sports production style into Versus’s NHL coverage on a widespread scale.

“You can see, in just the 75-odd days that we have been the production managers at Versus, that Sam has taken the coverage plan that has worked so well for NBC and seamlessly moved it over to Versus.”

Cross-Network Advertising
The deal also addresses targeted promotion across all Comcast and NBC Universal properties, which consist of 20 television networks and more than 40 digital platforms (including Comcast’s RSNs and local Websites). Versus is now in more than 79 million homes, and, with the NHL media rights in its pocket, the network is expected to continue its growth.

“We have a way to talk to the audience that no other company has had before,” said Ebersol. “This means we have a commitment to hockey all year that we can sell across all these platforms.”

This battalion of networks and platforms was key in the NHL’s final decision to stay with NBC and Versus, rather than move on to ESPN or another network.

“In the final stages,” Ebersol added, “when we got back together again after [the NHL discussed the rights deal with other networks], they said that they wanted an expanded, exclusive playoff relationship where all the games would be visible on the platforms of a single company. I see more and more deals coming down the road like that with us and with others.”