Two months ago, ESPN's top content executive John Skipper told investors the company will be aggressive in acquiring sports rights, but also judicious. "Let me be overt ... we will continue to make thoughtful decisions on what rights we can afford," he said.
Running the numbers appears to have led to circumspection on ESPN's part, in terms of grabbing rights to the NHL. ESPN apparently dropped out of the bidding -- as did TBS and others -- as Comcast struck a deal to keep national broadcasts exclusively on NBC and Versus.
It is NBCU's first sports rights deal since Comcast took over the company.
Comcast sports head Dick Ebersol said on a conference call that Versus would be re-named this summer with NBC in the moniker.
The 10-year deal, reportedly worth $2 billion, promises to expand the number of NHL games on the two networks while bringing the addition of an annual game the Friday after Thanksgiving. That seems straight out of the playbook for the "Winter Classic," where NBC has carried a popular outdoor game on New Year's Day, which has served as counter-programming to college football.
Under the deal, the NBC Sports Group gets digital rights across all platforms for games it offers, perhaps leading to the NBC games being simulcast on the Web a la "Sunday Night Football."
Versus will continue to carry the NHL All-Star game and split Stanley Cup finals games with NBC. NBC will also build a new studio for the NHL Network.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said on the call that the NHL should benefit from the sprawling assets of Comcast. The deal includes promotion on a slew of NBCUniversal properties and could bring some games to the USA network, cable's top-rated network.
ESPN carried games until a lockout canceled the 2004-05 season. Compared to Versus, it offered wider cable distribution -- at least for now -- than a cable NBC Sports Channel. It also had the potential to bring more exposure to the league through studio shows on its networks.
Hockey ratings have been rising, however, with the "Winter Classic" in 2011, the most-watched NHL regular-season game in the U.S. in 36 years. The Stanley Cup game on NBC last year was the most-watched NHL game ever in the U.S.