NHL Re-ups with NBC/Versus

  • Tuesday, April 19, 2011 11:54 AM
  • Written By: Josh Marks

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The NHL announced today that it has renewed its television deal with NBC and Versus for another 10 years. The deal is reportedly worth $2 billion and is the first big media rights pact since Comcast acquired NBC Universal. Also, the Toronto Globe & Mail is reporting that Versus will be renamed NBC Sports Channel.

The big loser is ESPN, who reportedly stayed in the bidding process until the end. Some have argued that the NHL should have gone back to ESPN because it would guarantee more coverage. But with the power of NBC Universal and Comcast now behind Versus, the niche sports channel could grow by leaps and bounds to threaten the dominance of ESPN. There is also a desire to promote the NHL across all the NBCU/Comcast channels, which include USA Network, MSNBC, CNBC, SyFy, A&E, Bravo and E!.

Here is the full press release from NHL.com:

In a deal that brings more nationally televised hockey to American fans than ever before, the National Hockey League and the NBC Sports Group have reached agreement on a record 10-year television and media rights deal, taking the partnership through the 2020-21 season.

NBC remains the exclusive network home and Versus the exclusive cable home of the NHL in the United States. It marks the first-ever national distribution of all Stanley Cup Playoffs games, including, for the first time, exclusive coverage starting with the conference semifinals. The agreement also calls for the NBC Sports Group to televise 100 regular season games per year and introduces a national NBC broadcast on Thanksgiving Friday. The announcement was made today by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Dick Ebersol, Chairman, NBC Sports Group.

In the regular season, NBC will continue to broadcast a national "Game of the Week," along with its coverage of the NHL Winter Classic and "Hockey Day in America." Versus will telecast an exclusive national "Game of the Week," plus NHL Premiere Games, NHL Faceoff, the NHL All-Star Game and any future NHL Heritage Classic outdoor games in Canada. NBC and Versus remain the exclusive home of the Stanley Cup Final.

The NBC Sports Group's commitment includes building a new studio for NHL Network at its existing facility in Stamford, Conn.

"This is the most significant U.S. media rights partnership in the League's history," said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. "NBC Universal / Comcast is one of the most important, connected and 'wired' media companies in the U.S., and as the potential of the NBC Sports Group is realized, the importance of our relationship will become more apparent to hockey fans and our business partners.

"NBC Sports and Comcast have been fantastic partners. They have provided incredible coverage of our sport and have teamed with us to deliver the best TV viewership figures in three decades. It is a credit to our players, our great game and our outstanding fans that Brian Roberts, Steve Burke, Dick Ebersol and their teams would make a commitment of this scale. We also know the best is yet to come."

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Taking Hockey Back To Its Roots

  • Sunday, February 20, 2011 11:06 AM
  • Written By: Josh Marks

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Ice hockey was birthed on outdoor frozen ponds in Nova Scotia, Canada, in the 19th century. Over 200 years later the game is played indoors in big city arenas underneath high definition video boards. But there is a movement to take hockey back to its roots outdoors -- away from the big business of professional hockey and the overly regimented and pressure-filled youth hockey leagues.

Today's is NBC's Hockey Day in America -- a day long celebration of the fastest sport in the world and how it has grown at the grassroots level here in the United States. And not just in the far north, but in nontraditional places such as the African-American community of Anacostia in Southeast Washington, D.C. The special is being broadcast from Chicago's Millennium Park ice skating rink and features a segment on the National Pond Hockey Tournament in Wisconsin.

And later this evening the 2011 NHL Heritage Classic will be broadcast live on Versus. The game pits the Calgary Flames against the Montreal Canadiens from McMahon Stadium on the campus of the University of Calgary. The event is basically Canada's version of the popular Winter Classic, which this year took place at a rainy Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

But it is too cold in Alberta for rain. This game is going to be hockey at its purest form. Under the big, cold Canadian sky, these two franchises will go back to their childhood days of playing on the frozen ponds and backyard rinks. Back to when there were no rules, no refs, no money, no pressure, no parents. Just neighborhood kids playing for fun and building memories that will last a lifetime.

Meanwhile, enjoy this excellent documentary courtesy of Snag Films on the history of pond hockey and how ingrained outdoor hockey is to the fabric of life in Minnesota.

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NHL Decade Review: Highlights and Lowlights

  • Monday, December 21, 2009 3:00 PM
  • Written By: Josh Marks

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As the National Hockey League skates into the second decade of the new millenium, a recap of the Oughts is in order -- both the highlights and lowlights.

Overall the NHL is on a positive track as profits are up, the game has never been more exciting to watch and technological innovations are changing the way fans view and interact with their favorite teams. But there are also some financially failing franchises, injuries are on the rise and professional hockey is still a distant fourth behind the NFL, NBA and MLB in Americans' sporting passions.

Just some of the many trends and moments worth examining.

WHAT RECESSION? Despite the global financial crisis, the NHL had its most profitable year in 2008-2009 and team values rose $3 million with revivals in Chicago, Washington and Pittsburgh leading the charge and new deals with companies such as Honda and Cisco providing a boost.

LOCKOUT LOW POINT Remember the 2004-2005 lockout? I know, it has faded from memory as fast as a Joe Thornton slap shot. But this was no doubt the lowest point for the league in the past decade. The NHL earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first North American professional sports league to cancel an entire season. It is nothing short of a miracle the NHL was able to survive and now thrive after the devastating "lost season."

NEW RULES: THE GOOD In an effort to woo back disaffected fans following the lockout, the NHL instituted new rules to make the game more exciting to watch. Perhaps the most significant change was cracking down on the neutral zone trap defense, which was made famous by the New Jersey Devils. While the Devils had much success with this style of play, they were widely criticized for making the game boring. New rules that opened up the neutral zone took effect such as doubling the width of the blue and red lines, lifting the prohibition on two-line passes and vigorously enforcing obstruction penalties such as hooking and holding.

Another significant rule change was instituting the shootout if an overtime regular season game ends in a tie. While some argue that the shootout is a cheap gimmick, I would argue that it has made the game more exciting by showcasing the skills of shooters and goalies and preventing teams from settling for a tie because there is always two points on the line.

NEW RULES: THE BAD Automatic "no-touch" icing was initially going to be part of the new rules but it wasn't adopted. Bad decision. Injuries due to players racing for the puck is a major concern that could be alleviated by automatic icing. Also, that funny-looking trapezoid zone area behind the net should be eliminated. Restricting the area where a goalie can play the puck is unfair and unnecessary.

THE RISE OF THE EUROS The influx of European talent has enhanced the NHL's international appeal and made the game more fun to watch. The Detroit Red Wings and Washington Capitals are prime examples. In 2008 Nicklas Lidstrom became the first European captain to win a Stanley Cup when Detroit downed Pittsburgh. The Caps are bursting with European talent such as Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, Tomas Fleischmann and Simeon Varlamov just to name a few. Plus, the NHL has moved some of their regular-season openers to Europe. This season games were played in the Czech Republic and Sweden. Expect many more games played overseas in the next decade.

WINTER CLASSIC The now annual New Year's Day outdoor game has been a great success by turning historic venues such as Wrigley Field and this year Fenway Park into ice hockey rinks and airing the game to a national TV audience on NBC. The inaugural game in 2008 at Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium broke the NHL attendance record (71,217) and the Wings-Hawks game at Wrigley last January had the highest TV ratings of any hockey game in 33 years.

VANCOUVER OLYMPICS The upcoming Winter Olympics in Vancouver is going to be an amazing showcase for the NHL's best players representing their countries. The fact that it is in North America is a huge bonus because the games will be shown in prime time. Could Team Canada and Sidney Crosby play Team Russia and Alex Ovechkin for the gold medal?

THE COYOTES CONUNDRUM The fate of the Phoenix Coyotes was one of the biggest question marks heading toward the end of the decade and was a black eye for the league. The saga in Arizona started when the Coyotes filed for bankruptcy on May 5. Since then, there have been a circus of potential owners -- some wanting to keep the team in Phoenix and others wanting to move the team to Hamilton, Ontario. On Dec. 18, Ice Edge Holdings purchased the team and are expected to keep the franchise in Phoenix.

AN UP AND DOWN DECADE ON TV The decade started on ABC and ESPN and is ending on NBC and Versus. While many fans including myself have been critical of the NHL's contract with Versus, there appears to be light at the end of the tunnel because of the NBC Universal-Comcast deal.

The reason I believed the NHL should have stayed on ESPN, despite its anti-hockey bias, had to do with leveraging matchups such as Pens-Caps from last year's playoffs in order to reach the maximum audience. Versus (formerly the Outdoor Life Network) has always been a niche channel with limited reach. Thus, one of the greatest playoff series in recent memory was not hyped as it should have been.

But Comcast owns Versus and the hope is that there will be more cross-coverage and promotion with NBC and that Versus and its hockey coverage will benefit from the power of NBC. So while the past decade has been mixed on television, the future certainly looks bright. Also, the NHL Network, NHL GameCenter Live on NHL.com and the NHL Center Ice package have given more options to watch out-of-market games.

NHL BECOMING MORE DIVERSE Despite the stereotype of NHL players being as white as the ice they play on, the NHL has quietly become more colorful as the decade has progressed. There are currently 26 blacks, nine Asians, six Hispanics and eight Jews playing in the National Hockey League.

TV, Web Offer Hope To Priced Out NHL Fans

  • Sunday, October 11, 2009 10:21 PM
  • Written By: Josh Marks

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The sad story of professional sports pricing out the average fan is well documented.

ESPN.com recently ran an Outside the Lines feature story on the sparsely populated Legends Suite at the new Yankee Stadium. It turns out Wall Street hucksters aren't even willing to spend the $1,200 in this down economy to get so close to the field they can see the brand of sunflower seeds being spit out of Derek Jeter's mouth.

So it is with some NHL franchises. According to the New York Times' SlapShot blog , by the time a family of four buys tickets, parks and eats at Air Canada Center for a Toronto Maple Leafs game they will have spent a whopping $585.57. The Leafs raised their ticket prices by 10.2 percent followed by Pittsburgh at 8 percent and the Rangers at 7.1 percent.

This with the United States unemployment rate at a 26-year high of 9.8 percent and 7.2 million jobs lost since the recession began in Dec. 2007. The unemployment rate in Ontario is down slightly but still at 9.2%. And while Pittsburgh's unemployment is better than the national average at 7.8 percent, the state of Pennsylvania is at 8.6 percent. And the epicenter of the financial crisis -- New York City -- experienced a 10.3% unemployment rate in August mostly due to all the layoffs on Wall Street.

So how can the Leafs, Penguins and Rangers justify their ticket price increases? They can't. Thankfully those three franchises don't reflect the whole picture of NHL ticket prices. The cost of admission overall stayed level at an average of $51.41 for non-premium seats -- only 0.3 percent higher than last season.

Still, even with NHL ticket prices stabilizing this year, it is still too expensive for many fans who are financially suffering right now.

So what is a poor puckhead to do? The options for watching games on television and the internet either got a whole lot better this year or will improve soon.

DirecTV dropped Versus in September due to a carriage dispute and so far there has been no progress in adding the channel, but hopefully this will change soon. However, Dish Network added Versus for three months and possibly longer. To demand DirecTV add Versus immediately call 1-800-531-5000. To thank Dish Network for adding Versus and ask them to make the channel permanent, call 1-888-686-2388.

All of this would change of course if Comcast, which owns Versus, buys NBC Universal from General Electric. The cable giant is close to a deal with GE to merge with the TV and movie studio. And according to a report in the Wall Street Journal, Comcast is very interested in expanding their sports programming to compete with ESPN. A partnership with NBC would mean Versus would instantly up its game through NBC's NFL, NHL and Olympics coverage. Versus would no longer be seen as a niche channel but part of powerhouse NBC Sports. That means more hockey coverage and that also means Dish Network and DirecTV will be forced to carry Versus on basic cable. All great news for hockey fans.

But right now the best option for hockey fans on a budget is NHL GameCenter Live on NHL.com. The website really upped their game this year, providing a great deal for twenty bucks a month or a one-time payment of $160.

NHL GameCenter Live offers all the out-of-market games not nationally televised on Versus or NBC. The best thing about the subscription is how portable it is -- you can log on from any computer with internet access anywhere in the world to watch games.

New features include an adaptive video option which automatically controls the bitrate of the video quality depending on the connection speed to prevent buffering and choppiness.

Also, DVR functionality offers the opportunity to rewind and fast forward by 10 seconds at a time to see that amazing goal again if you missed it. After replaying the game you can switch to live mode at any time.

The picture-in-picture function places another game within the frame of the larger game and multiview allows up to four games to be watched simultaneously.

Archived games are also available to watch so if you miss the game live you can check back the next day and watch it.

But perhaps the best feature is that it is commercial-free. NHL GameCenter Live does its best to cut off advertisements before they start airing so it is only the action on the ice that you get to see.

Viewers are certainly catching on as orders for NHL GameCenter Live are up 70 percent compared to last year at this time.

Most watched NHL game in 36 years

  • Monday, June 15, 2009 3:14 PM
  • Written By: Josh Marks

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Friday night's Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final on NBC was the most-watched NHL game in 36 years with an average of 8 million viewers.

The network's press release said the previous mark was a 1973 Stanley Cup Final Game 6 between Montreal and Chicago on NBC which drew 9.4 million.

The game earned a 4.3 rating, the best for a series-ending Final game since Anaheim-New Jersey's 4.6 rating in 2003.

NBC Sports' broadcast finished No. 1 for the night in every category including viewership and household ratings.

The closing minutes of the game, which saw Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury make a spectacular last-second save to preserve the 2-1 win (pictured above), drew about 10 million viewers.

These figures are likely higher because Nielsen only reports home television sets tuned into the program and since the game was on a Friday night there were many sports bars, airport lounges and hotel rooms tuned into the game.

Also, when CBC's Canadian coverage is factored in, plus international broadcasts in hot spots such as Russia and Sweden, the total audience grows even bigger.

In related news, Puck the Media blogger Steve Lepore reports that the NHL is on the verge of announcing a broadcast deal with NBC for the next two seasons. The revenue-sharing deal is great news for those hockey fans wanting more exposure for the league, as Game 7 on NBC clearly demonstrates the potential of the games being aired on network TV as opposed to specialty channels such as Versus.

The deal should hopefully include all seven Stanley Cup Finals games on NBC. Also, when the contract with Versus expires in 2011 the NHL should not renew but instead air regular season and playoff games on one of NBC Universal's basic cable channels, the most obvious fit being USA Network.