The NHL is set to announce the terms of their renewed contract with NBC and Versus today, for upwards of $200 million a year. (Multiple sources say it's a 10-year deal.) That sounds like a lot of money, or not a lot of money, depending on who you talk to. Versus also sounds like the best home for hockey, or not the best home for hockey, again, depending on the source.
Let's talk cash. First thoughts, that's a hell of a lot more than the $77 million per year of the last deal. The league has clearly outperformed expectations, but when the previous one was signed, the league was desperate coming out of a lost season and was an unknown quantity. So hockey's generally as healthy as it's been since at least the mid '90s — ESPN's late lamented deal signed in 1999 was worth $120 million a year.
But the final numbers on this one, whatever they turn out to be (even adding in the Canadian TV deals), will still pale in comparison to the other sports. The NBA's various deals total about $930 million a year. MLB and the NFL annually take in $3 billion, with a B. Hockey's still a distant no. 4 in ratings, and no one was expecting NBA money.
There were some who weren't even expecting to hit the $200 million mark, however. With four bidders — FOX dropped out last week, Turner yesterday — it came down to ESPN and NBC/Versus really really wanting this deal. ESPN kept upping their bid, but NBC/Versus, as per the previous contract, had the right to match any bids. And they continually did, until ESPN deemed the numbers too rich for their tastes.
So, it's NBC. But it's really Versus. And that's the part that's going to garner some derision both inside and outside of hockey circles. First let's dispense with the old canard that nobody gets Versus; if you have cable, you probably get Versus. Certainly, more than receive the NFL Network or MLB Network. But more importantly, Versus is going to continue to make the NHL the centerpiece of their network, something ESPN never would have or could have done.
Let's reminisce over the NHL on ESPN theme music for a second. Yes, it brings back fond memories. But let's not pretend they ever treated the league as an equal with the other three major sports. (Did they treat it as well as it deserved? Open question.) There's a reason the highlights show was called NHL 2Night; it was confined to the ESPN2 ghetto.
One would expect Versus to air games most weeknights, with nightly highlight shows. That's all you can ask for. And as for legitimacy, now that this deal is done, they will proceed with their NBC Sports rebranding that might win over some who still remember it as OLN.
But being on a channel with a number that most can't identify from memory might be okay too. Hockey fans love their outsiderness. (Maybe too much.) On Versus, they still get to pretend they're part of an exclusive club enjoying a secret amongst themselves. So fans are happy, NBC is thrilled, and league, despite some who would have preferred the exposure of ESPN, gets to pocket a guaranteed $2 billion over the next decade. The hockey landscape is clearer today.