The Suitor Tutor, Part 1: On VERSUS and NBC, How Have They Done, and Where the Merger Will Take Them

With the NHL nearing a new TV contact, a multi-part series, “The Suitor Tutor”, takes a look at the potential bidders for NHL hockey.

The Suitor: NBC and VERSUS, incumbent rights holders to the National Hockey League on over-the-air television and cable, respectively.

The Numbers: VERSUS has paid upwards of $70 million per season to air the league, and is owned by Comcast, one of the richest cable giants on earth, able to afford almost anything.  That includes the networks of NBC Universal, which they’re in the process of merging with.

The Ratings:

Regular Season
2007: 1.0
*2008: 1.0
2009: 1.0
2010: 0.9

*- In 2008, NBC began airing a single Game of the Week instead of regional coverage.

Stanley Cup Final

2006: 2.3
2007: 1.6
2008: 3.1
2009: 3.1
2010: 3.4


Regular Season
2006-07: 0.2
2007-08: 0.3
2008-09: 0.3
2009-10: 0.3

All-Star Game
2008: 0.8
2009: 0.8

Stanley Cup Final
2007: 0.7
2008: 1.3
2009: 1.8
2010: 1.9

(Source: Andrew’s Dallas Stars Page)

The Story: In 2004, the NHL was headed for a brick wall.  The lockout was looming fast with it being anyone’s guess when it’d return.  ESPN and ABC were cutting back on hockey coverage, leaving the NHL and the Stanley Cup Playoffs largely dumped to ESPN2 for basketball.  However, the NHL kept ESPN on as cable partner for the impending 2005-06 season.  That said, ABC refused to bite on paying a rights fee to keep the league, so the NHL worked out a cost-sharing deal which has proved effective, if you think the guarantee of making money for low ratings (a la the NHL on NBC) is better than losing money on slightly higher ratings (MLB On FOX).

This happened in 2004.  The NHL On NBC’s 2004-05 schedule would have looked like this, in case you’re curious:

January 22

2:00 Philadelphia vs. NY Rangers OR Chicago vs. St. Louis OR San Jose vs. Colorado

January 29
1:30 Tampa Bay vs. Boston OR Colorado vs. Detroit OR Anaheim vs. Minnesota

February 5
2:00 Dallas vs. St. Louis OR New Jersey vs. Philadelphia OR Chicago vs. Boston

February 19
2:00 Detroit vs. Tampa Bay OR Philadelphia vs. NY Rangers OR Dallas vs. St. Louis

February 26
1:30 Colorado vs. Philadelphia OR San Jose vs. Detroit OR NY Islanders vs. New Jersey

April 9
NY Rangers vs. Boston OR Chicago vs. St. Louis
5:00 Anaheim vs. San Jose (West Coast Only)

It is likely that even new rules wouldn’t have gotten the NHL much in the way of ratings with that slate.

Regardless, NBC has stuck with the league for five seasons, moving into it’s sixth for 2010-11. It will mark the longest relationship the league has had with any single broadcast network, tying the network’s relationship with CBS from 1966-72.  The ratings have grown in the playoffs and Final the last few years, but the NHL hasn’t seen ratings growth on network TV in the regular season since 2002.  Despite the Winter Classic, there just isn’t any moving the needle with the current Game of the Week format, not that regional coverage was any better.  The NHL may need a jolt somewhere along the line.

Meanwhile, as the lockout ended, it became clear that ESPN had very little intention of being serious about the league.  Led by Mark Shapiro, who notoriously disliked the league and disrespected it in the press, ESPN offered $60 million for about 40 games, all on ESPN2, with only the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final and, presumably, the All-Star Game airing on the mothership.  The NHL sought other partners.

They found Comcast, who were attempting to turn the little-watched OLN into a sports powerhouse after a barely failed attempt to purchase Disney.  They offered more money, more games, and a bigger attempt at promoting the sport, and most importantly, the idea that it would be seen as #1 with the network.  It’d be the stepping stone to acquiring other sporting events.  That hasn’t exactly happened, but there’s another round of negotiations for leagues in 2013, so we will see if Comcast can pull any clout.

The result was the NHL On OLN.  The first year was very touch and go, by which I mean … kind of awful.  The studio set for the first half of 2005-06 season – legendarily constructed in about six weeks – was public access level.  The graphics were from the mid-90’s.  Some genius decided to put the score ticker at the bottom of the screen.  The camera angles were shaky.  It looked weird for awhile.  Then they changed the name from OLN to VERSUS.  It made sense, considering OLN was the KFC of the sports world (the original name was Outdoor Life Network).  Nonetheless, things got better.

It went from this:

To this:

To this:

To, finally, this:

Here’s what Sports Media Watch said about VERSUS in 2007:

Versus is an unmitigated disaster.

A network that some thought could catch up with ESPN is now settling for low numbers and low interest. And, with Major League Baseball and the NFL sewn up for the rest of the decade, and the NBA likely to renew its current television deal, Versus is locked into its position as a little-watched niche network with a little-watched niche sport for at least the next six years.

Here’s what the same site said a few weeks ago:

Three years ago, this site characterized Versus as an “unmitigated disaster”. Needless to say, that was premature. But even if Versus is far from being a disaster, it has not exactly been a success either.

To sum up Versus simply: the past was bleak, the present is decent and the future is bright.

Fact is, VERSUS’ coverage from a technical standpoint is better than ESPN’s ever was.  Yes, the studio show is week, and the mixing and matching of commentators like coaches changing lines can be distracting, but the point remains that VERSUS is doing the best they can.  Its just that, at times, they can’t get out of their own way, whether it be disputes with cable companies or at times, not programming enough hockey.  But overall, they are doing a fantastic job currently.

The ratings have grown, the production has grown, and the league has grown.

The Verdict: We’ll be announcing our entire suggestion for the NHL TV verdict later on, but here’s my take on VERSUS and NBC.  The NHL would be fine sticking with VERSUS, because people are getting used to finding the league on that network.  There is a certain kindred association between the two.  They would be foolish to go chase another cable landlord.  At the same time, VERSUS can 100% not afford to lose the NHL.

Like I said, the NHL needs a jolt on the network TV side, and you have to wonder if NBC is where that jolt is going to come from.  That said, if NBC and VERSUS are partners come next year, that may be just the jolt needed.

2 Responses to The Suitor Tutor, Part 1: On VERSUS and NBC, How Have They Done, and Where the Merger Will Take Them

  1. Pingback: The Suitor Tutor’s Fang Forecheck: On NBC and VERSUS « Puck The Media

  2. Ron says:

    300,000,000 people in European countries that play hockey. How much TV money from that market?

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