The NHL’s New TV Contract: What it means for you (and why it’s really a dud).

The big news in the hockey world today is that of the NHL’s new contract with NBC Universal. Over the next ten years, the NHL seems to be drastically expanding its media profile via NBC and its various networks and platforms. Of course, this is being presented as something great for hockey. However, like anything else with the NHL, I’ll believe it when I see it. To me, this looks like a giant extension of what’s already happening anyway, dressed up like something revolutionary.

In essence, this is the EDGE Uniform System of television rights deals. Lots of pomp and circumstance when introduced, and nothing but frustration when actually put into action.

And as a hockey fan, I’m not happy about this. Once again, the NHL will look bad, hockey coverage will be the same minimal amount as it has been, and the sport won’t grow. Once again, Gary Bettman has gotten a white elephant of a contract, and is trying to sell it to a fanbase that isn’t buying it. Once again, once again.

The basic parameters of the contract are the following:

- 10 years, through 2020-21.

- $200 million per year, $120 million more than what the NHL receives now.

- NBC/Versus is still the exclusive home of the NHL on cable.

- There will be 100 exclusive regular-season games over the course of the season.

- NBC and Versus will have exclusive timeslots for hockey.

- Every playoff game will have national distribution in the United States.

- From the second round on, every playoff game will have exclusive coverage by NBC/Versus in the United States.

- Promotion across NBC’s various networks and digital platforms.

Sounds pretty good, right? Sounds like this is going to be pretty awesome? Naturally, with almost any type of celebratory press release, the truth is in the details. Let’s break each of those points down, shall we?

TEN YEARS, THROUGH 2020-21, $2 BILLION

$2 billion, that’s a lot of money! And sure, $200 million per year seems like a lot, especially when the previous contract was for only $80 million per year. Breaking it down, that’s $120 million more, $4 million more for each team, et cetera. It also seems like a lot because “$200 million, that’s a lot of money!”

That is, until you look at MLB’s latest contracts worth $3 billion per year, for only 7 years. That works out to $428 million per year.

Or, the king of U.S. television, the NFL. That league is getting $3 billion per year. Per year. That blows the NHL’s contracts out of the water.

There’s always the NBA, you might say. They’ve got the same general calendar, same number of teams and games. Right now, the NBA makes $930 million per year for all of its broadcast rights, a figure that blows the NHL out of the water.

Once again, in terms of raw dollars, this deal is a distant, distant 4th place. The NHL, among movers and shakers in the know, again looks bad.

NBC/VERSUS IS STILL THE EXCLUSIVE HOME OF THE NHL, 100 EXCLUSIVE GAMES

Again, this is something that looks great on paper, but really isn’t much of a good thing. If more games and more exposure is what the NHL and us fans are looking for, it won’t be found with this.

Actually, this arrangement is pretty much what the NHL has now. In 2010-11, Versus telecast 78 games, while NBC telecast 13 games, for a total of 91 games. Therefore, by increasing to 100 games…the NHL has increased its national footprint by NINE WHOLE GAMES!

Nine games!

In comparision, Versus covered 65 games in 2009-10, bumping their total by 13 this year. The NHL saw a bigger increase from last season to this one, than from this season to the first under this great new TV contract.

What this will most likely do is simply bump a couple games to Versus on an exclusive basis, instead of having local coverage for the teams involved while the rest of the country watches on Versus. Or, there will basically be no tangible effect, as one or two games per team over a season will amount to nothing.

Also, by making NBC and Versus the exclusive channel for hockey, the NHL eliminates the chance to have another broadcasting partner (and the money/coverage that would come with it). Like with most other exclusive partnerships, Bettman traded a negligible amount of money for an arrangement that ultimately hurts the league. It’s no wonder that no other North American sports league has such an arrangement.

NBC AND VERSUS WILL HAVE EXCLUSIVE TIMESLOTS FOR HOCKEY

This is, once again, another thing that the NHL already has. NBC’s Sunday coverage is already scheduled to be the only game at that time, and many Monday nights on Versus feature the single game on that night.

This isn’t something that needs promoting, because it’s already there. Of course, I could say that this is in there because there is so little else to promote. But I won’t do that.

Instead, I just want to point out that having an exclusive timeslot is worthless if said timeslot is a bad one.

Right now, the NHL’s Game Of The Week comes on NBC at 12:30 pm on Sunday afternoon. Not only is that a half-hour earlier than when NFL games begin, but the NHL is typically a lead-in to golf, bull riding, extreme sports, or something else.

If this truly was a great contract, the NHL would be the featured product of the day, not the lead-in to the crap we make fun of for not really being a sport. It’s embarrassing, and just sad that the NHL is shoehorned in between infomercials and the PBR. Again, no other major sport has such a minor-league deal.

One small change here is that there will be some coverage on NBC during Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. While this could lead to more exposure, I think this will be more of a one-time event, independent of the rest of the season. What the NHL needs is more time on NBC from the Winter Classic on, and this Thanksgiving game should be a beach head to more games on broadcast TV in the fall. However, given the parameters of this contract, that doesn’t appear to be the case.

EVERY PLAYOFF GAME WILL HAVE NATIONAL DISTRIBUTION IN THE UNITED STATES

I can’t fault the NHL on this, as this actually could be a good thing. On one hand, we could see every game! On the other hand, I look forward to 2012′s equivalent of Anaheim/Nashville on G4, CNBC, or somewhere obscure (and embarrassing!). Or, those games will get put on a NBC-owned network outside of basic cable, as the network tries to force NHL fans to get cable companies to support a fledgling channel.

In other words, it’ll be just like the NHL on OLN.

FROM THE SECOND ROUND ON, NBC/VERSUS WILL HAVE EXCLUSIVITY

For NBC, this is a good thing. For those local broadcasters for each team, it is not. This does nothing to increase the NHL’s footprint, all this does is take games away from local broadcasters. Essentially, those second round games that NBC gains is why the dollar amount has gone up.

Going by the press releases, it seems like NBC Universal only wants the NHL for the playoffs and Winter Classic, as everything else is filler.

Even Dick Ebersol thinks so, going by this quote from NHL.com:

“(Exclusivity during the playoffs is) “the most important thing” in the record 10-year deal because “it is a two-month season that vibrates.”

“I like the rabid fan base in each and every city during the playoffs,” Ebersol told NHL.com. “That doesn’t exist in every city in other sports, that deep level of rabidness. That’s not to say you won’t see it in some cities. It’s that in the NHL it is rabid in every city (and arena).”

This deal comes down to NBC and Versus getting another exclusive round of the playoffs, doubling the number of series they can exclusively cover.

However, what this will mean is still more of the same for NBC, and slightly more on Versus. Again, from the NHL.com press release:

“Along with the NBC/Versus share for the Cup Final, Ebersol said that starting with the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, of a possible 28 games during the NHL’s second round, 24 will be broadcast in full on Versus and another four on NBC. For the conference finals, 12 of the possible 14 games will be on Versus and the other two on NBC.”

There will be, in short, two weekends during the second round and one weekend during the conference finals where there’s a game on Saturday and a game on Sunday. We have this arrangement now. You just saw it, for example, last weekend. The Red Wings/Coyotes game was on Saturday, the Capitals/Rangers game was on Sunday, both on NBC. We’re going to be getting a lot more of that minimal arrangement, with no primetime games until the Stanley Cup Finals, no playoff doubleheaders, nothing more. Just more of the same, for a little bit more money.

PROMOTION ACROSS NBC’S VARIOUS PLATFORMS

I took look forward to NHL commercials on NBC programming, a couple cursory mentions during NFL games, and the occasional hockey cameo on Jay Leno. This is simply a filler point, nothing more. Although really, ‘nothing more’ sums up the contract well.

In short, could we have expected anything less? Every hockey fan feels that the league can grow by leaps and bounds, but the leadership has the attitude of a fifth-place league. And when you think you’re a loser, you eventually become a loser. That’s what is happening here.

If the NHL is so great, why didn’t the league negotiate for more games on NBC, specifically? Why didn’t the league push for more coverage during the regular season on NBC, especially when there is so little else they are airing? Why didn’t the NHL have something in place if the NFL ends up not playing in 2011?

The reason, of course, is Gary Bettman. For his entire reign as commissioner, Bettman never manages to show any spine when it comes to American negotiation. He always takes whatever the worst, initial offer is, and then tries to pass it off as an achievement. Time and time again, the NHL gets the short end of the stick, as Bettman seems to merely kiss ass instead of drive a hard bargain. That happened again today.

Meanwhile, when there’s someone that Gary can have power over, he tries to squeeze every drop of that power out. Octopi in Detroit? Call the police! Sean Avery makes a tasteless joke? Make a big deal out of suspending him!

This is a loser deal. I cannot believe the owners do not do something about this. I could have negotiated a better deal, and I’m some 23-year-old kid. The collective wisdom of hockey fans on the internet could

have gotten a better arrangement, simply by looking at the numbers and applying common sense.

Like you, I love hockey. I love the NHL, love my team, love the sport. And like so many times before, I just have to grin and bear it when my sport does something embarrassing like this. I guess I should just be used to it by now.

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About the Author: Gordon is currently looking to enter the world of journalism, while spending his free time at either the University of Michigan or the Joe Louis Arena.

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  1. j3ff4ro says:

    “There’s always the NBA, you might say. They’ve got the same general calendar, same number of teams and games. Right now, the NBA makes $930 million per year for all of its broadcast rights, a figure that blows the NHL out of the water.”

    $200 million + CANADA [CBC + TSN + SPORTSNET] + MSG + FOX + all other regional carriers = ???

    I would really like to know the answer to this question

    • Eric says:

      I understand your point about the additional coverage in Canada, and on the MSG Network and local Fox Sports coverage in the US. The value may be more than the NBA in total dollars.

      But the NBA has all of its money in the US markets. A small portion of that is from TSN’s coverage and whatever the Score pays for its Court Surfing program. But I would guess over 95% of its TV revenue is American based. And that is the argument here. The NHL is still getting nothing in revenue and exposure compared the other three sporting leagues.

      This deal does very little to help out coverage beyond the Canadian border. 4 second round games on NBC? 2 conference finals games? This is basically a deal between the NHL and Versus with NBC standing in the corner, yelling at the other two parties “You guys do all the work, we only want to be there for the important stuff”.

      I wanted the NHL to go to ESPN because they would be able to actually have the NHL on in prime-time before the Stanley Cup final. But instead, we will probably get another afternoon Conference Final game that will go to overtime and get pre-empted for the Preakness again. Thanks Gary Bettman for all your hard work at shafting the NHL again.

      • Pete says:

        Did you see the deal that ESPN floated at the NHL? The were going to broadcast 1 game a week – ONE – on ESPN 2, and that’s it. ESPN does not, has never, and will never care about hockey.

  2. pgrmdave says:

    I agree – the NHL provides a good sized fan base, which, as far as I can tell, tends to have more wealth than the average basketball/baseball fan (hockey gear is expensive, and many people who enjoy it have played in some way). I would think that our eyes are valuable to advertisers, and thus the stations. I would’ve been okay with the same amount of money, and a guarantee of 2 games a week on NBC, one in the afternoon and one in the evening. If we want to grow the sport, we’re going to have to force ourselves into the spotlight, and make people take notice.

  3. ak says:

    bettman sucks

  4. RC says:

    What a great piece, so great in fact that I stopped reading after your first point due to the blatant display of lack of thought. A comparison to the deals of the NFL, MLB and NBA on a dollar for dollar basis? Really? What part of that makes sense? The NHL doesn’t have rating that come close to any of those properties, of course they don’t compete dollar for dollar. It was never going to happen. Ever. Now maybe if you wanted to write like a grown up, instead of some 23 year old kid, you’d have looked into the fact that this deal sees the NHL paid more per rating point than the current NBA deal. Significantly more. But yes, they really should have held out for those NFL type dollars.

    I’d tear apart the rest of the article, and there is much to tear apart as it is obvious you did very little actual fact checking (btw, there were not one, but two, primetime games on both saturday and sunday this past weekend, nice work on that one). My particular favorite is your characterization of this as the “worst initial offer” when it’s clear from all reports that there were four parties involved in the bidding process, and ESPN only bowed out after multiple rounds of bidding for the rights upon NBC exercising it’s option to match.

    Seeing as you claim that the NHL could have gotten a better arrangement based on your wisdom, let’s hear it. And please, don’t leave out the details.

    • Steve says:

      I totally agree, RC. ESPN was the only other bidder in town (Turner wasn’t serious, just testing the waters), and their bid was a joke. Truth is, the NHL still IS the 4th and 5th (in certain markets) sport in town. Just because the ugly girl gets a makeover, it doesn’t make her hot. She is still the ugly girl. You have to look at it as a business and reality. Just because you and I think it is the best sport ever played, doesn’t mean most of the US market still thinks it’s just a violent, wrestling match on ice that we all watch so we can drink beer. The NHL got the best deal offered to them AND now they can promote their brand better with this extra money to show the majority of people that watch all those other boring sports (MLB, etc.) that hockey is cool and fun. BTW, I love the 12:30 EST Sunday game! To me, that IS primetime on the weekend. I get to watch hockey and still do something fun or with family in the late afternoon and evening.

  5. Rum says:

    You need to remember this is a US deal. Yes, the NBA and MLB and of course the unbeatable NFL have bigger $$$ numbers, but if you add all of North America you get a much different picture. The money coming into the NHL from Canada thru sponsors, TV and the like push the league more to 2nd than 4th. MLB and NBA has it`s fans in Canada, but it`s very small number overall. (Basically it`s Raptors and Blue Jays)
    An example is TV ratings.. it is so often said that such and such NBA game had XX amount of viewers, yet the NHL game that night had so much less. BUT, if you add the US viewers to the english Canada viewers, then add the french RDS viewers, the NHL has the most eyes on their game on most nights. Gotta look at the facts and stop listening to these bashers all the time. The facts are posted on internet sites daily, check em out and you will be surprised that there are more people watching NHL playoffs than NBA.

    • Larry Walker says:

      I agree with your point, but the deal is for American TV rights. Whatever Canada brings is is irrelevant to this particular argument. But I agree with you, nonetheless.

  6. My only two points of contention with this deal are the VS/NBC exclusivity from the 2nd round onwards and the entire concept of network exclusivity. IT really wouldn’t hurt to have a 2nd major cable network disconnected from the NBComcast tentacles cover hockey. Theres no motivation for Versus to make their coverage better now.

    I was also hoping for more details as to the role NHL Network will take in showing games. Oh well. Wait and see again.

  7. Justin says:

    Sorry,

    RC owned you on this. Comparing to the NBA deal is maybe slightly relevant due to the similar seasons, but there is no way an NHL TV deal belongs in the same conversation as the holy grail of the NFL deal, or even the 160 games of boredom that is MLB.

    For the TV ratings the NHL has pulled, it is a really good deal, and way more than they could even dream of coming out of the lockout when ESPN stocked up on NBA and poker.

    I say to hell with ESPN, they have the journalistic credibility of the National Enquirer anyway. (How many times did they get the Brett Pevre story wrong before finally guessing right?)

    Since losing both the NFL and NBA in the 90s, NBC’s nose is open as far as sports credibility goes. Obviously they got the NFL back, and I think are looking to use the NHL to rebuild. NBC needs the NHL more than ESPN does, and I think there’s no way ESPN signs up for 90 games and all the playoffs with all the other stuff they’ve commit to.

    Lastly I like the idea of having the 2nd round nationally, as good as last night’s NYR-WSH game was, I definately thought the end of BUF-PHI was worth watching. But again I’m a Minnesota Wild fan, it’s been a few years since April’s been relevant.

    The only thing I’d wish was in there were some doubleheaders on Sunday, I’m not a huge fan of the lone 12:30 et game. But if ratings improve, I would think it’s possible.

    Broadcast quality will improve, by all accounts Versus will be re-branded into something NBC-sports-branded. Of course they are motivated to improve, they need ratings to justify the $200M they just spent.

    In the end the NHL made the best deal it could and was fortunate ESPN decided to bid for real instead of the lowball BS they pulled. It’s clear NBC was going to hang in there until ESPN quit and really wants the NHL.

    Contrary to what you think, there’s no way you or anyone else could’ve done much better.

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