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Alliance with Versus continues to plague NHL

Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Let's face it, the National Hockey League's television deal with Versus has never been well-regarded, and now that DirecTV has dropped the channel from its lineup, the partnership has become even less appealing.

Many of us in the hockey media have taken the league to task for not having the clout to negotiate a better television deal in the United States, but it's hard to blame this current fiasco on the NHL, which has been caught in the middle of a staring contest between a pair of competing corporations.

DirecTV, a major provider of satellite TV, and Comcast, the telecommunications giant that owns Versus, are perpetually fighting for dominance in the world of television, and this latest episode is just another battle in a never-ending business war.

What the squabble boils down to is that DirecTV believes Comcast is charging them an unfair price to carry Versus on their service. The carriage deal expired on August 31 and on the following day, Versus was no longer available on DirecTV.

In a letter to inform customers of the programming change, DirecTV had this to say about its bitter rival, "In sports, we all expect fair play and a level playing field - a competitor that plays by the rules. Evidently that's not the rule book Comcast plays by. Its unreasonable demands are the economic equivalent of juicing to gain an advantage over its competitors. And our fear is that their egregiously greedy behavior may ultimately kill coverage of your favorite sports on television."

The NHL has yet to officially comment on this battle, a stance that makes sense considering the first game isn't scheduled to air on Versus until October 1. By that time it is possible that either DirecTV or Comcast will have caved in to the other side's demands.

DirecTV seems to have the upper hand in the fight as Comcast needs the satellite provider to carry Versus more than DirecTV needs the channel as part of its lineup. Ratings are less than stellar, although the NHL stated that viewership increased by 27-percent last year in an August 19 press release that bears the headline "Versus enters fifth year of NHL coverage with tremendous momentum". After the events of this week, that heading now seems like it came straight from the pages of everyone's favorite fake news publication, The Onion.

The biggest problem for Comcast, and therefore the NHL, is that not having Versus on DirecTV - which boasts an estimated 18 million subscribers - would put a serious dent in the amount of viewers the sports channel is able to reach. Faced with a serious drop in viewership, it's reasonable to assume that Comcast will have to swallow its pride and lesser the asking price to air Versus.

On the other hand, DirecTV doesn't want to lose Versus programming either. In addition to the NHL, the channel also airs, among other sporting events, the Tour de France, college football, auto racing and mixed martial arts in the form of World Extreme Cagefighting. Versus college football coverage features games primarily from the Mountain West Conference, but the station also airs a handful of contests from the Pac-10 and Big 12.

Granted, Versus has dedicated itself to sporting events that have a fringe following in the United States, but followers of these sports are passionate and they could possibly force DirecTV's hand in this case.

The NHL does have to assume some responsibility for this problem, as it's the league's inability, or lack of desire to, get their product back onto ESPN airwaves that is at the heart of this problem. Versus has the backing of a powerhouse in Comcast, but the public outrage at losing the channel may not be enough to sway DirecTV. ESPN, however, has become ubiquitous and any cable or satellite provider wouldn't get very far if it didn't count the "worldwide leader" as part of its lineup.

Many folks are betting that Versus will be back on DirecTV at some point in the near future, and they are probably right. Whether that will be before the NHL season begins is anybody's guess.

LUONGO LOCKED UP BY 'NUCKS

Roberto Luongo's importance to the Vancouver Canucks is immeasurable, a fact pounded home by the fact that he is currently the only goaltender in the NHL to also serve as his team captain.

So, it came as no surprise this week when the Canucks inked their franchise player to a 12-year extension that is worth a reported $64 million and has an annual salary cap hit of $5.33 million. Luongo is considered by many to be the best netminder on the planet and he is extremely popular in Vancouver. The Canucks are serious about winning a Stanley Cup and locking up Luongo for the long haul is not a bad step towards making that dream a reality.

One question that may be raised by the league concerning the contract, however, is whether the Canucks circumvented the NHL's collective bargaining agreement by paying Luongo just $1 million in each of the last two seasons of the deal. After all, the 30-year-old Luongo will be a few years into his 40s by the time the deal expires and the NHL has been concerned lately with teams trying to front-load contracts in order to sidestep the salary cap with help of a player's early retirement.

Earlier this summer, the NHL announced that it was investigating Philadelphia's signing of Chris Pronger and Chicago's deal with Marian Hossa for similarly-structured contracts. Not much has been said about those investigations since it was announced that they were underway, and it's merely speculation that the league will announce any kind of inquiry into the Luongo deal.

The problem the NHL faces with those investigations is that it's extremely difficult to prove that teams and players talked about a timeline for retirement during contract negotiations. Perhaps the NHL simply wanted to scare teams away from such deals by investigating the Flyers and Blackhawks, but if that was the intent it didn't stop Vancouver from inking Luongo to the same type of deal.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Dan Di Sciullo at ddisciullo@sportsnetwork.com.
Dan Di Sciullo


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