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.
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.