NBC Sports, NHL Reach New TV Deal

Dick Ebersol - The Weinstein Company & A&E IndieFilms - 2010
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NHL executives and NBC Sports Group chairman Dick Ebersol unveil a 10-year deal, estimated to be worth around $2 billion, that will increase the number of games on sports network Versus, which will be rebranded.

NEW YORK - NBCUniversal's NBC Sports Group on Tuesday unveiled a new 10-year TV deal with the National Hockey League that is estimated to be worth around $2 billion and extends the league's relationship with its current U.S. TV partners.

At about $200 million, the rights contract's annual price tag is more than twice the $75 million fetched in the previous NHL deal.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NBC Sports Group chairman Dick Ebersol along with other executives formally announced the renewal deal in a conference call mid-day.

TV networks had been in pursuit of a new TV deal with the NHL whose current arrangement ends with this season. NHL programming has already been airing on NBC and Versus, which after the recent Comcast deal to acquire a majority stake in NBCUniversal are both part of Ebersol’s group. The deal is the first major sports rights contract since the Comcast-NBCUniversal deal.

The new agreement, which runs through the 2020-21 season, calls for an exclusive relationship that puts all Stanley Cup playoffs games on either NBC or Versus, or another NBC Sports Group platform. NBC will also build a new studio for the NHL Network at its existing
facility in Stamford, Conn.

Cable sports giant ESPN and Turner were also in the running for the NHL rights.

The league's growing profile and popularity after a 2004/2005 lockout that had weakened the NHL brand - and the overwhelming success of live sports in a time shifted TV environment - made the NHL a hot property during this cycle. The interest from ESPN and Turner - which last year sealed a 14-year, $11 billion deal with CBS Sports for NCAA men's basketball - was expected to help drive up the price of the current rights package. 

Under the new rights deal, the NBC Sports Group will air 100 regular  season  games  each year, mostly on Versus, which will see its number of games rise from 50 to 90, and introduce a national NBC  broadcast on Thanksgiving Friday.

"There's absolutely nothing that fits better on the NBC cable platform than the NHL," said Ebersol. "It brings a strength to that entire group of platforms that nothing else can."

Bettman said with the Comcast-NBCUniversal merger, the new rights deal allows for 20 networks and 40 digital platforms to be "put at our disposal to grow the game." He predicted: "Our business will continue to thrive." The league has been looking to continue to grow its fan base, particularly in the U.S.

ESPN in a statement said: "We had constructive conversations with the NHL offering them the opportunity for unprecedented distribution of every game of the Stanley Cup playoffs on ESPN platforms, including authentication to broadband and mobile devices."

"It's a good fit for NBC/Versus - a relatively cheap way to build a sports franchise foundation," said RBC Capital Markets analyst David Bank. And the long-term visibility will help the league, he added.

Patrick Rishe, director of SportsImpacts and a sports business professor at Webster University, lauded the strides the NHL has made in recent years. "From where the league was post-lockout until now, certainly momentum has built," he said.

Asked about the planned rebranding of Versus, he said: "If NBC's concept takes off and is well-received, this [could] add value to the deal and potentially put the net in more households, making it more valuable to NBC."

Etan Vlessing in Toronto contributed to this report.

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