After negotiating seriously with ESPN and Turner Sports, the NHL signed a new 10-year television deal that will keep games on NBC and Versus, where they have been for six years.
The deal is worth $2 billion, according to two people with knowledge of the negotiations who could not speak publicly.
In the expiring contract, Versus paid the NHL about $75 million per year. NBC, however, split profits with the league and paid no rights fees. That will change, although Dick Ebersol, chairman of the NBC Sports Group, declined to be specific Tuesday.
"We are paying a substantial part of it," he said of the deal, the first sports one for NBC since being acquired by Comcast. "Our run of not paying anything for a number of years is over."
Ebersol also said Versus would be renamed within 90 days to reflect its position in the NBC sports family.
Among the highlights of the new deal: There will be 100 regular-season games televised nationally, up from 77, and there will be an annual Thanksgiving Friday national telecast on NBC.
Ebersol said that despite the notion that every sport benefits from having ESPN as a major carrier, "I think that sometimes you benefit by being the only child."
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said he understood why some see being on ESPN as everything. He disagrees.
"Everybody has enormous respect for ESPN," Bettman said, "but six years ago we chose to go in a different direction for a variety of reasons and we believe it's worked out well for us. And the promise of what NBC Universal/Comcast [will be] I think is extraordinarily exciting. … I think the coverage is terrific. And I think it's only going to get better."
Derek Baine, a senior analyst covering television networks for the research firm SNL Kagan, said this was a good deal for the NHL. "This shows sports continue to remain very popular," he said. "And maybe the NHL was helped because of looming strikes in other areas."
AJ Maestas, president of Navigate Marketing, a Chicago-based firm specializing in sports and entertainment marketing, called the new contract "excellent" for the NHL and echoed Ebersol — that it's not always best to be a small fish in a big pond.
"The smart money is on NBC and Comcast to offer a network with more sports programming using the cable higher-subscriber fees. Everything can't be on ESPN," Maestas said.
According to the NHL, its ratings have risen 84% over the last four years.
"That's not just luck," Maestas said. "And the demographic is attractive — young males. While being on ESPN might mean your sport is covered more on 'SportsCenter,' you also might just get one 'game of the week' or be relegated to times that aren't attractive. I really do believe this is a good deal for hockey. It's a pretty big win."