Entering the final season of its television rights deals with NBC and Versus, the National Hockey League made an aggressive move today by announcing a deal with HBO. The pact includes an in-season, all-access, behind-the-scenes series that will follow the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals for four weeks, leading up to the NHL Winter Classic game on New Year’s Day between the two teams.
The series will be part of HBO’s 24/7 reality franchise, which had previously ventured into sports such as boxing and auto racing, and will take on the tone of HBO’s much-talked-about NFL series Hard Knocks.
The NHL is hoping that the series will expose the league and its players to a new audience. The series will follow two of the league’s better teams that feature the league’s two best players—Alex Ovechkin of the Capitals and Sidney Crosby of the Penguins.
“We want to continue to expose our players and the game to as big an audience as possible,” said John Collins, chief operating officer of the NHL, who put the deal together with Ross Greenburg, president HBO Sports. “We’re hoping to reach an audience we don’t typically reach. An audience beyond just hockey fans.” And Greenberg believes the series will do just that. “We believe people who don’t watch NHL hockey right now will gravitate to this show.”
The series will be televised each Wednesday for four weeks, beginning Dec. 15 at 10 p.m., with a immediate repeat at 11 p.m., much like HBO’s Hard Knocks. (Earlier this year, the latter followed the NFL’s New York Jets in preseason).
But for the first time, the series will follow professional sports teams from the inside during the regular season, something which Greenburg doesn’t believe any of the other major sports team owners or leagues would allow.
The Capitals and Penguins will meet in the annual Winter Classic to be played outdoors in Heinz Field in Pittsburgh on Jan. 1. The series will follow the teams, including inside access to locker rooms and training rooms, and will show players during nonplaying hours with their families. The two teams will also play each other in a regular season game on Dec. 23 in Washington, and the series will offer all-access passes to both team locker rooms before and after the game, and also will have players and coaches miked up.
Greenburg said the series “won’t give away any trade secrets” of the teams, but it will offer viewers a peek at hockey players that regular TV rightsholders covering the NHL games do not get.
Greenburg said the series will be of interest to non-hockey fans, because it will contain elements of the players off the ice with their families and show, for instance, how Heinz Field is transformed from a football field (where the Pittsburgh Steelers are playing their regular season NFL games) to an outdoor hockey venue.
Much like Hard Knocks, he said, salty language could be an element of the series and that nothing will be censored, although care will be taken not to divulge any team game strategies to opponents.
NBC, which will televise the Jan. 1 Winter Classic, is sure to benefit from the publicity and viewer interest the series will drum up for the event.
“Dick Ebersol [head of NBC Sports] is going to thank us for this,” Greenburg quipped. “It will drive a big rating [for the Winter Classic].”
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman agreed. “I discussed this with Dick Ebersol during the process and he thought it was a good idea.”
Meanwhile, the NHL is still in talks to come up with new broadcast and cable TV rights deals. Bettman has said he is pleased with both of the current rights holders, NBC and Versus. But ESPN, which formerly had the cable TV rights but gave them up, has said it is interested in once again getting NHL rights.
It is seemingly a risky move for a league to wait until it is in its final season to negotiate a new deal, but Bettman told Mediaweek he is not concerned and is confident that a deal will get done before the end of the coming season.
Under the current deals, Versus pays the league about $72 million annually, while NBC has an ad revenue–sharing deal with the league.
ESPN is expected to join with ABC to make a bid for the cable and broadcast rights.
Versus is owned by Comcast, which is in the process of acquiring NBC. That deal is expected to be approved sometime later this year or by early 2011. Perhaps the NHL is waiting for that to happen so that NBC and Versus can make a joint bid.
Regarding such a deal, Bettman said: “We’re dealing with consummate professionals at NBC and Versus. My guess is we won’t get to the end of this season without a new deal in place. We’re not viewing this situation as anything but business as usual. We are engaged in preliminary dialogue.”
Asked if that dialogue included not only current rightsholders, but also ESPN/ABC, Bettman declined to comment.
One thing is for sure: Based on the success of HBO’s 24/7 and Hard Knocks reality shows to draw in viewers, 24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the NHL Winter Classic can only be a positive for the league in its negotiations for its next TV rights deal.