EDITOR’s NOTE: as part of our series ‘The Suitor Tutor’, I asked Ken Fang of Fang’s Bites to help me out with some additional analysis. However, since I told him the wrong day because I’m an idiot, we got our days mixed up. So I’ve given him his own platform to chime in on Part 1 of the series on NBC and VERSUS. Enjoy, and Part 2 of ‘The Suitor Tutor’ will show up at 1:00 PM ET.
THE STATE OF VERSUS/NBC
As my esteemed blogging colleague Steve Lepore did so well today in going over Versus’ and NBC’s tenure with the NHL through the last five years, let me give you a quick overview of the partnership. I’ll divide this into two eras, the first from 2005-2007 which I’ll name The Great Depression and from 2008-present which I’ll call The Era of Good Feelings.
When NBC and Versus entered into the hockey broadcasting business, the NHL was coming off a devastating lockout that wiped out the entire 2004-05 season. So let’s take a quick look at the two eras and come to a conclusion where we’re headed with a looming TV contract negotiation.
THE GREAT DEPRESSION, 2005-2007
When Versus started airing games in 2005, it was known as OLN. It had a distribution that was lacking, but Commissioner Gary Bettman pledged patience and said the viewers would come. As the first ratings came out, it appeared the joke would be on Bettman as viewership sank well below ESPN’s levels. OLN’s game presentation looked like something out of the 1970’s production handbook with angles that made the viewer feel he or she was watching from the back row of the arena.
For NBC, things weren’t much better. Ratings were low. While production was on a par with CBC and TSN, the ratings didn’t reward NBC. In addition, the NHL was not receiving a rights fee as NBC entered into a revenue sharing agreement with the league.
Both networks showed growing pains such as NBC shuffling an overtime playoff game to Versus in favor of pre-race coverage of the Preakness Stakes. Versus wasn’t immune from bad decisions as it quickly dumped out of NHL playoff coverage for Professional Bull Riding.
Ratings for the Stanley Cup Final reached dangerously low levels as the 2006 and 2007 series involved both involved a small market U.S. team vs. a team from Canada. Neither final set the world on fire and they set record low ratingsl.
As both entered the 2007-08 season, there was no reason to believe that the trend would change. Unless the NHL had a matchup involving two of its marquee teams, the NHL’s ratings would stay in the basement.
THE ERA OF GOOD FEELINGS, 2008-PRESENT
In the final year of Versus’ first three year contract with the NHL, something happened. Viewers started watching the the NHL again. It wasn’t in droves, but it was enough of an uptick to make the NHL notice. The league rewarded Versus with a new contract, although some including yours truly felt it wasn’t deserved.
It was in this era where Versus came into its own with better game production and finding a decent host in Bill Patrick to lead its studio show, Hockey Central.
With the concept of the NHL Winter Classic that gave NBC surprisingly good ratings against college football bowl games on New Year’s Day, the Peacocks also found ratings momentum. And with the two Pittsburgh-Detroit Stanley Cup Finals in 2008 and 2009, the US TV partners finally got ratings gold. It gave Commissioner Bettman ammunition against the NHL Players Association which wanted the league to return to ESPN.
And this year with the Vancouver Winter Olympics giving the NHL a huge boost, ratings soared for the postseason on both Versus and NBC. Plus having the resurgence of the Chicago Blackhawks gave the league a huge boost with one of its Original Six teams back on top.
So where does this leave us with the negotiations coming up for both networks? There’s no doubt that the NHL would love to see NBC pay a rights fee. After five seasons and going into a sixth with revenue sharing, the league wants some cold hard cash. But the question is, would NBC be willing to pay up?
Well, the whole game changes as Versus’ parent company, Comcast is purchasing NBC. With NBC Universal almost a distant memory and its fiscal responsibility just about out the window, there’s a feeling that a combined Versus/NBC would pay to keep the NHL. In addition, Versus has been able to get other sports albeit not the NFL or MLB, develop some signature programming (The Daily Line) and is a potential player for in rights negotiation in the future.
I’ll explore what potential partners could provide for the NHL in the coming days, but the current team definitely has an advantage over ESPN and Fox. For one, Commissioner Bettman is squarely in the corners of NBC and in particular, Versus. Two, Bettman has an interest in keeping Versus around having put his eggs in the Comcast basket when the network was in its infancy and not drawing viewers. And three, NBC gives the NHL huge promotional power for the Winter Classic.
A combined Versus/NBC entity would make for good partners for the league. It would provide a strong TV entity similar to what the NHL had with ESPN/ABC in the early half of the aughts.
The big question is also about the Olympics in 2014. If NBC is successful in bidding for the 2014 Games in Sochi, expect Versus to carry most of the hockey tournament, which was divided on cable between CNBC, MSNBC and USA Network this year. Also, the NHL has yet to agree to play in Russia, but the players want it and so do the networks. If NBC and Versus stay with the NHL and subsequently gain the Olympics, the promotion from Comcast would only help the league.
In handicapping the renewal for Versus/NBC for the 2011-12 season and beyond, it’s about even money at this point. Of course, the 800 lb. gorilla in the room for the NHL and any league is ESPN and we’ll explore their potential for re-entry into the hockey broadcasting business tomorrow.