Versus rebrands to go head-to-head with ESPN

NBCUniversal’s new exclusive 10-year rights deal with the National Hockey League announced on Tuesday will be the model for other future rights deals under Comcast and its joint venture with General Electric. NBCU Sports topper Dick Ebersol said the NBC net and 19 other channels with their digital properties offer tremendous promotional and distribution possibilities for sports entities. “We have a way to talk to audiences that nobody else has,” said Ebersol.

NBCU is paying more than $2 billion to renew its deal for NHL rights.

In making the announcement, Ebersol said that the Versus cable sports channel will be re-branded with a new name in the next 90 days. He offered no hints on the new name, but suggested NBC would be part of the title.

The NHL deal, the first sports deal negotiated since Comcast bought a 51% stake in NBCU, is “a validator” of the merger, said Neal Pilson, president of sports consulting firm Pilson Communications. “It shows that combining these two companies gives them maximum leverage to protect existing sports deals and to make new ones.”

The re-branding of Versus also may suggest that NBCU is serious about creating a competing sports service to powerhouse ESPN. In addition to NBC and Versus, NBC Sports includes the Golf Channel, Universal Sports and a group of regional sports networks.

ESPN had been a bidder for the NHL rights, as was Turner Broadcasting but the Time Warner unit dropped out because execs felt an NHL deal at the asking price didn’t make financial sense for them. “NBCU held all the cards because they had the right to match (competing bids),” said TV sports consultant Mike Trager. An ESPN spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

NBCU will televise 100 regular season games a year, including a national NBC broadcast on the Friday after Thanksgiving. NBC and Versus will control all digital rights as part of the deal.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said the new deal was the “most significant” the league has ever participated in. In the previous six-year deal, Versus, then owned exclusively by Comcast (which also owns the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers), paid $75 million a year to air hockey. NBC paid no rights fees but instead had a revenue-sharing agreement in place with the NHL.

Ebersol said Tuesday that NBC would be paying fees, but he didn’t elaborate on how much.

Games will be shown on Versus and NBC, but Ebersol added that some playoff games would be shown on other national cable channels that are part of NBCU. He declined to say what channels, but clearly the USA Network has to be under consideration given its full carriage and its history of once broadcasting sports.

Versus is seen in 79 million homes. This will be the second name change for the channel, once called OLN for the Outdoor Life Network, whose lineup included rodeo and bike racing coverage. It was renamed Versus in 2006. “They had to have hockey,” said consultant Trager. “Hockey is a tentpole for Versus. Losing the NHL would have been a huge loss and created a hole hard to replace.”

When execs were asked Tuesday whether having a deal with ESPN is when a sport is finally taken seriously, Bettman said “(NBCU) for us is a great place to be.” Ebersol conceded that ESPN is “the strongest sports operation that has existed on Earth” but argued that the NHL on Versus helped the sport tremendously because it was not lost in the clutter of other sporting events. Versus’ “stewarship of the National Hockey League was strong and robust.”

Despite a recent report that Ebersol is clashing with his new bosses at Comcast, particulary when it comes to bidding for a new round of Olympic games, Ebersol said he has a great working relationship with the brass at NBCU and at Comcast. He added that he clearly understands their desire to make money on sports. “I don’t think I will ever be let out of the building before I can show that we can make money,” he said.

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