Hockey, Horse Racing, and Versus

So I might just have a new favorite network.

Yesterday afternoon, as I began to head south after a brief trip to Saratoga, Brother Backstretch sent along the following:

The National Hockey League and the NBC Sports  Group  have  reached agreement on a landmark 10-year television and media  rights  deal, taking the partnership through the 2020-21 season…The  agreement…calls for the NBC Sports Group  to  televise  100  regular  season  games  per year and introduces a national  NBC  broadcast on Thanksgiving Friday.

For the first time, the Conference Semifinal round will be exclusive on VERSUS with a 200 percent increase in games. In the regular season, we’re increasing VERSUS’ coverage from roughly 50 to 90 games.

The  agreement  between  the  NHL  and  the NBC Sports Group includes targeted  promotion across the combined Comcast/NBCUniversal company which, since  the  merger,  consists  of  20  television networks and more than 40 digital platforms. VERSUS, which was in 64 million homes in 2005, is now in more than 79 million homes and is on course for further expansion of its distribution.

In 2005, ESPN chose not to renew its television contract with the NHL. The League was in the middle of a lockout, and when play resumed in the fall of 2005, we learned that if we wanted to watch hockey games outside of our own markets, we’d have to turn to Versus.

To what?

Versus was a relatively unknown channel, high up on the dial. Though hockey fans were used to our sport being on a lower tier than the other three major sports, this seemed like a new blow: we had just gone a year without hockey, and now we’d have to try to watch it on a channel that most of us weren’t even sure that we had?

It’s taken a while, but this former skeptic has been won over: used to catching a game on Versus on Monday or Tuesday, I now frequently find games on Versus on other nights of the week. During the playoffs, I know to which channel to turn to watch a game that I wouldn’t otherwise see. Versus’ coverage combined with that of NBC (both networks are owned by Comcast) means that hockey fans have no shortage of games to watch during the marathon that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs, through April, May, and June.

This might give a racing fan hope, as in March, we learned that racing was becoming part of the Versus family:

NBC… has committed to 25 hours of total Triple Crown-related programming this year — double the amount of air time last year — with broadcast time on its flagship network and Versus, a cable channel it is attempting to promote. Versus will provide live broadcasts of the Kentucky Oaks and Black-Eyed Susan Stakes, as well as undercard coverage of all three Triple Crown races. NBC will shoulder the three big races.

According to NBC officials, the Kentucky Derby has been designated a “cross-channel priority,” meaning the network plans to promote the race across its broadcast properties. The “Today” show and its weekend edition will broadcast live from Churchill Downs, as will CNBC and the Weather Channel, the officials said. In addition, two new entertainment channels in the NBC universe, E! and Style, will do segments on the Derby, a strategy that has been endorsed by Churchill officials to expand the event’s draw beyond sports fans and into the realm of fashion and culture.  (DRF)

Now, one might argue that one niche sport (racing) joining another niche sport (hockey) on a niche network (Versus) is not really something to get excited about. But the new NHL deal means that more eyeballs than ever are going to be on Versus, and so far, the network is living up to its promotional word.

I’m watching a lot of hockey these days, and it’s not uncommon to see an ad for the Derby or the Triple Crown; in fact, I’m hearing about more about spring racing than I have in previous years, because for the first time, racing is being promoted on a network and during programming that I actually watch.

And the link between hockey and horse racing is not new. As a kid, I remember knowing that Serge Savard was involved in harness racing, and it’s not uncommon for horses to be named after hockey players: Eric Lindros, Henrik Lundqvist, Sean Avery, and Mike Komisarek all have had equine namesakes.

In 1994, Ed Olczyk, then of the New York Rangers, spent his day with the Stanley Cup at Belmont Park. Last summer, Joel Quenneville, coach of the Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks, spent a day at Saratoga last summer to watch one of his horses run, and he’s a regular at the Saratoga meet.

Olczyk is now a broadcaster for the Blackhawks and for Versus; he is a major TV presence in the sport. He also famously hit a Pick 6 at Hollywood Park in 2009; several years before that, Quenneville hit one, too, at Saratoga.  Olczyk has done handicapping seminars at racetracks.

Hockey’s most high profile season coincides nearly perfectly with the Triple Crown; the playoffs begin in mid-April and end in mid-June. Even people who don’t follow hockey during the year often tune in for the playoffs, and the Stanley Cup playoffs are regularly referred to as the most compelling contests in sports, with their unlimited overtime, physical demands, and rituals, while the Kentucky Derby is called “the most exciting two minutes in sports.”  Winning the Stanley Cup and winning the Triple Crown both require endurance, talent, and more than a little luck. Both sports offer a mesmerizing combination of speed, excitement, and risk. Both are steeped in tradition.

These two sports on the same network offer an intriguing opportunity for cross-promotion and the chance to bring new fans to racing through hockey. Maybe Olczyk could do a little handicapping lesson during an NHL broadcast. Maybe Quenneville could talk about why he loves owning horses.

Maybe we could get a few jockeys to lace them up and see how their upper body strength translates to the ice; if they can control a 1,200 pound animal, what might they be able to do to a slapshot?

I hope that the NBC/Comcast/Versus marketing department comes up with creative ways to promote these sports not only individually, but together. If they do, April, May, and June could be awfully fun.

8 thoughts on “Hockey, Horse Racing, and Versus

  1. As I’m not a hockey fan, I haven’t spent much time watching Versus (which, according to Darren Rovell, is going to be renamed sometime in the next 90 days). But that’s about to change, not only with the added racing coverage, but also with the fact that they’re a rightsholder for Mountain West college football — the conference that my beloved Boise State Broncos are joining this season. I’m looking forward to checking them out. This piece gives me some reasons to be optimistic.

    I think the sports television landscape is in dire need of a cable entity that can compete, at least on some level, with the behemoth that is ESPN. With the backing of Comcast, Versus seems like they’re in the best position. They’ll need to land an NFL package on the next go-round, though, to be a major player. Here’s hoping.

  2. Cool. Just don’t get too used to the name of our newly adopted favorite network.

    Versus, formerly OLN, formerly Outdoor Life Network, will be relaunched as something like NBC Sports Channel, formerly Versus. Believe the plan is to go right after ESPN with a recognizable brand.

    Would expect that to happen after the playoffs conclude.

  3. I’ve been watching Versus (and formerly OLN) for many years now. I’ve been impressed with their programming, as they bring the sport of cycling to network television. Fantastic coverage of the Tour de France, and great coverage of most of the road races.

    It was great to see NHL come to the network, I just wish they would broadcast more Penguins playoff games. I guess I will have to wait until the next round.

    Didn’t NBC have live coverage of a bunch of Derby preps last year? It was nice to see the races in HD, but I found I preferred HRTV’s pre and post race coverage and analysis to what NBC offered. NBC was more interested in celebrities, food, and fashion rather than the horses. I would hope that Versus would concentrate more on the sport and equine athletes with their coverage.

    Versus has been great with bringing less followed sports to television and I definitely appreciate that. This is also the network that brought us “Sports Jobs with Junior Seau” and Seau did two memorable episodes – one where he was playing hockey with the Capitals and the other where he took us behind the scenes at a race track.

  4. NHL staying with NBC is a good deal. The league went from having to give the product away to getting a revenue stream going again. It remains to be seen how much more Versus can penetrate cable systems. If they do, it’s not likely to be because they have hockey.
    The question of whether racing on NBC is good remains to be answered. Both ESPN and NBC seem to be consolidating racing coverage, not expanding it. The deals about to kick off this year were worth less than the prior deals, and NBC leveraged those lower prices by shifting the viewership of the Derby away from sports fans to “fashion and celebrity viewers.” Good luck finding that audience on the Preakness or Belmont, let alone something like the Haskell or Travers. The prep races went away this year because Churchill and the NTRA couldn’t afford to put them on the air and NBC wasn’t interested. Will they become interested in six years the way they did with hockey? I doubt it.

  5. Never say never with NBC and more racing. They now broadcast the Rolex Three-Day Event (what NBC calls the “Rolex Equestrian Championships,” because it is, technically, the US Spring championship for the sport of eventing and the public has no idea what a three-day event is). Even though it’s an Olympic sport, it doesn’t get much more esoteric in equestrian sports on television, but several years ago, NBC gave it an hour of air-time (tape delayed by a week) on Derby weekend and, ratings-wise, it out-scored hockey and whatever else was against it in the Sunday afternoon time-slot. Several years later, NBC is still airing the Rolex event (which takes place annually at the KY Horse Park in Lexington on the weekend prior to the Derby). This year, NBC plans to broadcast the first two phases (dressage and cross-country jumping) on tape and will show final phase of the event (the show jumping) LIVE as it occurs on May 1.

    If you had asked me 10-15 years ago if I’d ever see my other favorite horse sport of eventing on network TV, I’d have given you very good odds that it would never happen (although I have always thought it should – it’s exciting stuff – it’s like steeplechasing on steroids). Happily, now, I’d be wrong now.

    So, you never know what NBC might do…the ratings numbers are the key and horses, in whatever format, have always been a popular draw and a powerful visual for viewers.

  6. Let’s hope with the extra coverage on Versus we get more horses and back stories and less useless celebrity interviews…

  7. You’re too young to remember Ranger goalie Gilles Villemure who drove harness horses in NY while still an active player in the early ’70’s.

  8. NBC I think got lucky in that I think NYRA didn’t want The Belmont Stakes to move to ESPN, they went back to NBC because of a bigger problem Disney is having: From what I’ve read on message boards devoted to sports broadcasting over the past year-plus, there are a large number of ABC stations west of the Central Time Zone that don’t want sports programming (except for the NFL) on their stations AT ALL because it disrupts regular programming. In some cases in fact, there are ABC stations in the Mountain and Pacific Time zones that apparently make more money on infommercials than regular program.

    That said, one danger of going to Versus is that it’s “out of sight, out of mind” to many. ESPN is still the 800-pound gorilla of sports, and if it were me in Bettman’s role, I would have paid whatever it took to go back to ESPN because there are a lot of people who have never come back to the NHL following the lockout solely because of it being on Versus, a channel that doesn’t have close to the brand name recognition that ESPN does.

    That said, I actually would not be surprised if in 2012 the Oaks and Derby both wind up in prime time on NBC, with the Oaks in a one-hour broadcast that includes a Derby preview on Friday night from 10:00-11:00 PM ET/7:00-8:00 PM PT (10:40 PM or so local post for the Oaks) while the Derby telecast goes prime time from 7:00-10:00 PM ET/4:00-7:00 PM PT with the Derby under the lights with a 9:25 PM ET post. We might very well have actually seen this happen this year were it not for the fact the deal that had Comcast taking over NBC just went final a couple of months ago, and if the Derby rating holds where it’s been for two years, I think NBC will insist on a prime time Derby in 2012 and beyond because the rating each of the last two years (10.3) would have made the Derby telecast the #1 rated program of the week both times if it qualified for prime time. We may see it anyway so the Derby and Oaks simulcasting to the Asia-Pacific region can greatly expand with the potential for hundreds of millions in new handle.

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