Dick Ebersol has produced eight of the 10 most-watched television events in U.S. history, so when he shares his excitement over the NBC Sports Group locking up a long-term deal to remain the national rights-holder to NHL games, he’s worth listening to.
On Tuesday, the League and the NBC Sports Group reached agreement on a record 10-year television and media rights deal, taking their partnership through the 2020-21 season. NBC Sports Group will pay about $200 million annually for the length of the contract, according to a report in SportsBusiness Daily.
Ebersol appeared as a guest Thursday on "NHL Hour With Commissioner Gary Bettman" and explained why he felt it was such a significant transaction.
"I can't imagine anything more perfectly fitting," Ebersol told Bettman. "We have an exclusive relationship, we have all of your over-the-air network content, regular season and postseason, on NBC. We're the exclusive carrier on a national basis on cable of the National Hockey League with 90 regular-season games all in either exclusive windows or exclusive games, and we have this expanded relationship in the postseason which I don't think has ever existed in any sport that I can think of, certainly in the modern era of television."
With the acquisition of NBC by Comcast becoming official on Feb. 1, the NBC Sports Group now consists not only of the myriad of NBC networks that include USA, E! and Bravo, but Versus, the Golf Channel and 11 Comcast regional networks.
"We can tell the public every day, on so many platforms -- we can tell women, young and old, men, young, old, kids, we can talk to each one of them," Ebersol said. "And if it wasn't enough to have 20 networks that allow us to promote and talk about things that are important to us -- and the National Hockey League is and will be -- we have 43 digital networks that reach 125 million unique Americans every week. So it's a platform to really get the word out there. And I think what's really important to more and more fans will be the expansion of the number of homes that take Versus, and that's equally important for us to get into more hotels and more bars and more places where people congregate. And hockey's going to play a huge role in doing that going forward because of the enormous commitment in games and exclusivity that you've given us."
While Versus will eventually receive a new moniker to more easily identify it as part of the NBC Sports Group, Ebersol said there are changes that can already be seen in the network's coverage of NHL games since the network took control of the reins.
"Anyone who's been watching hockey on Versus since the middle of February already sees one major difference -- the production is at a much higher degree of excellence," he said. "’Inside the Glass’ has become the part of any exclusive game we have … I think it's the most important innovation that's happened to the coverage of hockey certainly in my lifetime on television because it really gives you, when you have the right commentator -- and I think we often do with Pierre McGuire and Darren Pang and others -- down there, there's an intimacy, there's much more of a sense of the tempo and flow of the game.
"And then I also think that our studio presentation has changed dramatically in the last two months with some of the personnel changes and just the very look of where that telecast is coming from -- it's a much younger, much more contemporary look. And what we look forward to most of all in this new association, thanks to you and your brothers at the League, is much, much more exclusive product. For anybody out there who loves hockey anywhere in the United States, if you can touch Versus beginning next year, every single game in the playoffs will be available to you. In the first round the games will be seen across the country on Versus, although in the home markets they'll be seen on the (regional sports networks) or the local carriers, but from the beginning of the second round on, all the games are going to be seen either on NBC -- largely on the weekends until you get to the Finals -- or on Versus. All of them will be available for the first time. It is a major accomplishment, I think, for both us and you, that people everywhere now will be able to see this."
Ebersol went on to explain why having exclusive rights to the product would lead to better coverage for NHL fans.
"Whatever games we do from here on out, we're producing and directing, we're not picking up feeds from anybody else," he said. "Be it the regular season or be it the postseason, they're all produced by us. … But more importantly than that, I think you'll see, in-season, a much greater -- both in time and in quality -- commitment to shoulder programming built around the League. I think we have evidence just in the last couple of months, much better pre- and post-game coverage. … But I see much more programming that gets much more innovative about the players of the League, about the various things that always excite fans, trades, much more of an attempt to be a year-round thorough coverer of the sport than has been there in the past."
Ebersol, who has headed NBC Sports since 1989, feels there is no better time to get involved with the NHL than now -- lauding the strides the sport has taken, in particular since returning in 2005 from the work stoppage.
"In these last six years, the game has become much more fun for the fan and the viewer to watch,” he said. “The game gives much more of an opportunity for the skills of the players to be seen. I was not a fan of how the game seemed to get slow down at center ice as we ended the '90s and moved through the early years of the 2000s. There was just too much that broke the momentum of the players … and I think what you did," Ebersol told Bettman, "in consultation with the players, really was remarkable and made the game a much better arena experience and obviously a much better television experience because it was a faster, cleaner game to watch and to enjoy.
"On top of that, I think what we did together with the Winter Classic -- and I've said this before and I'll say it probably all the way to my dying breath -- is the freshest new meaningful idea to come to any major American sports league in a very long time, certainly 20 years, and the public has just absolutely surrounded it with their attention and their praise."