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NBC Sports Network making its playoff push

| Sunday, March 11, 2012

Neither Peter Puck, the long-ago face of NBC's partnership with the NHL, nor Penguins center Sidney Crosby, today's face of the NHL, ever made it to "Saturday Night Live."

However, Crosby was referenced March 3 by guest host Lindsay Lohan during an "SNL" skit. That followed Crosby and the Penguins garnering a mention during a Feb. 15 episode of "Law and Order: SVU."

Subtle references to Crosby on popular NBC programming is no accident. The willingness of NBC to promote the NHL across its family of platforms, which includes cable stations (USA and Bravo) and regional sports networks (Comcast SportsNet in Philadelphia and Washington), is just one advantage to the league extending its contract with NBC Sports through 2021, league chief operating officer John Collins said.

NBC Sports' $2 billion investment in the NHL is viewed by marketing experts as wise strategy for two companies that could use each other to provide a branding boost. That is especially reflective in the NBC Sports Network, previously known as Versus, which is not off to a strong ratings start since its Jan. 2 debut, based on tracking by Nielsen Media Research.

"A value study would show that NBC, with (owner) Comcast's deep pockets, is going to add tens of millions of dollars per year (in infrastructure and advertising opportunities) with its platforms and opportunities," said Ed O'Hara, senior partner for SME Branding in New York, which worked with the NHL after the 2004-05 lockout and maintains current clubs as clients. "I don't think there's been a broadcast partner willing to invest in the NHL the way Comcast has."

That includes ESPN, which reportedly made the NHL a heftier offer when the league's broadcast rights went up for bidding last year. Jon Miller, NBC Sports' president of programming, said his company "was outbid financially."

"They chose to partner with us," Miller said. "It is a true partnership."

Said O'Hara: "Staying with NBC was absolutely the right move."

Enhanced coverage

The NHL, which had been with ESPN, partnered with NBC in 2005 after the league returned from a season-long lockout. NBC became the NHL's national broadcast partner, and OLN was the cable home. OLN was rebranded as Versus for the 2006-07 season.

Comcast, which owned OLN/Versus, bought 51 percent of NBC in December 2009. Congress approved the sale in January 2011, and the NHL found itself with the same partner for its national and cable broadcast rights. NHL brass viewed that as a positive; Comcast had made no secret of wanting to develop a sports network that could challenge ESPN.

"Sports channels command huge premium rates for cable companies," said Kurt Badenhausen, a senior editor at Forbes magazine. "Other channels are stuck charging 35 cents a month for subscribers. Premium sports channels can command $2.50 to $3 for subscribers. ESPN is up to around $5.

"There is a tremendous value if you can create a strong sports network for Comcast. The variable to that is that it's going be very expensive to Comcast because the leagues and other sports networks realize that sports programming is one of the last viable options for things that must be seen live."

NBC Sports Network commands, on average, 30 cents from cable companies per subscriber, company executives said.

Aside from rebranding Versus as NBC Sports Network, hockey fans may have noticed other changes since the NHL and NBC Sports extended their arrangement late last year:

• 111 regular-season games broadcast on NBC or NBC Sports Network, including the first Thanksgiving Day game -- on Black Friday -- on NBC this past November.

• Analysts between the benches for every NHL broadcast, a brainchild of NBC Sports executive producer Sam Flood, who served as captain of his hockey club at Williams College.

• Audio enhancements, most noticeable during hits along the boards and when players make sharp turns, that Flood said are used to "create the feeling of seeing a game live."

Also, NBC Sports is building a new studio for NHL Network at the NBC Sports campus in Stamford, Conn. Previously, NHL Network broadcasts were produced in New York and Toronto.

Programming upgrades on NBC Sports Network is what most fans may have noticed. Games are preceded by a pregame show ("NHL Live") and are followed by a postgame program ("NHL Overtime"). Also, the network has an evening weekday show ("NBC Sports Talk") that covers major sports news and often features NHL analysts such as Mike Milbury.

Contrast that with ESPN, which has received criticism from hockey fans for not placing more emphasis on the NHL, the only major sport to which they don't own rights.

Unique programming -- including Bob Costas' "Costas Tonight" and behind-the-scenes series "NHL 36," which featured Penguins winger James Neal last week -- is critical to the success of NBC Sports Network, said Susan Goodell, vice president of Warchawski, a branding firm based in Baltimore and Washington.

ESPN is not perceived as a "vanguard of sports journalism," Goodell said. She added that NBC Sports Network would benefit from developing programming with "a serious approach," shows that viewers can't find elsewhere.

"When Versus was on its own and didn't have programs like that, you would equate it with ESPN2," she said. "But if you have a choice between an event and watching Bob Costas interview somebody, well, that's a legitimate choice. The conversation nowadays is what sports you associate with which networks. It's a tough, competitive space in the market."

Playing in the bigs

Aside from its affiliation with the NFL on "Sunday Night Football" and coverage of the Olympics, NBC Sports lacks a "big league" sport other than the NHL, O'Hara said. Major League Soccer recently signed a three-year deal worth $10 million with NBC Sports, and matches will air on NBC Sports Network -- but the NHL represents the network's "best chance to start chipping away at ESPN," O'Hara said.

That's the biggest reason NBC Sports must help the NHL grow beyond what O'Hara called "passionate, tribal" fans who often do not care about the Stanley Cup Final if their club is not playing.

A deciding Game 6 of the NBA Finals in June garnered a 15 rating on ABC, slightly more than triple the Game 7 rating (4.8) of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final on NBC. Illustrating O'Hara's point, however, that Game 7 between the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks earned a higher market share in Boston than any of the 2008 or '10 NBA Finals games featuring the Celtics.

Flood said NBC Sports must do a better job of "growing the ratings, getting more people to watch" the Cup Final, no matter which markets are involved. He said -- and marketing experts agreed -- NBC Sports must rely on its critically acclaimed storytelling during the early playoff rounds to "bring people in" to the Cup Final.

"This is the most recognizable trophy on the planet," O'Hara said. "It's unfortunate that it hasn't been at the forefront of all communication efforts. NBC has continued to improve on the production battle that faces hockey. If it makes the Stanley Cup Final a destination, (the NHL and NBC Sports) will get some clicks and buzz, absolutely."

Perhaps NBC can generate enough buzz to one day have Crosby utter, "Live from New York, it's Saturday night," instead of just having his name dropped by Lohan.

"They need more ideas," Badenhausen said. "And it has to start with the playoffs. For the NHL and all the team sports, so much of the attention and national (advertising) dollars are tied up in the playoffs.

"I don't think the NHL is condemned to be outside of the conversation with the NFL, NBA and MLB forever. I don't think anything is set in stone."

Additional Information:

Peacock and pucks

NBC Sports Network, previously known as Versus, is offering fans many chances to catch NHL games:

• Evening broadcasts of games on Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays

• Occasional doubleheaders on weekdays

• Expanded coverage from April 1-7 -- the last week of the regular season -- to include games with playoff ramifications

• Every playoff game will be carried on NBC or a platform cable station (NBC Sports Network, CNBC)

• All playoff games after the first round will be broadcast on NBC or NBC Sports Network

Source: NBC Sports

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