After a too-long pre-season, the NHL mercifully gets going for real Thursday and there is still no end in sight for the Versus-DirecTV dispute, meaning millions of U.S. fans will be shut out from watching games not involving their own teams.
I talked to a number of people with intimate knowledge of the situation last week and here’s what I learned:
• As far as DirecTV is concerned, Versus overvalues itself and is asking for an unfair rate hike out of line with what other carriers pay
• As far as Versus is concerned, DirecTV wants to take the channel away from six million viewers who get Versus as part of a package and make them pay extra for it
• Both sides dispute what the other contends
• The NHL is taking a wait-and-hope attitude
With properties such as the NHL, IndyCar, World Extreme Cagefighting and the Tour de France, Versus is a niche channel, even though it’s “The fastest growing national sports network in the country,” according to Jamie Davis, the company’s president.
With the highest-rated playoffs since 2002, the highest-rated conference finals and Cup final in more than a decade and the single-highest rated game in 36 years (Game 7 of the final) – not to mention Lance Armstrong’s comeback and Danica Patrick – Versus has reason to believe it’s worth more. But is that the case? Not really, according to USA Today’s Michael Hiestand.
“I always get accused of being a hockey basher,” he said, “but the thing is the numbers are so low in the U.S., incredibly low. And that’s after attempts, first by FOX, who put a lot of promotion into it, and then ESPN came in and said: ‘We’re going to show a ton of games. We have ESPN2, we’re going to show it on ABC.’ ”
But ratings on ESPN-owned properties were essentially nil, according to Hiestand.
“And then Versus came along with the theory that if they had something that had some really avid fans, they could use it to get distribution,” he said. “And it is what it is, but the numbers are really tiny.”
So Versus – and specifically the NHL on Versus – is a little fish in a big sea, but what about the fans? They end up being the big loser. And the worst part is they didn’t have to be, depending on whom you believe.
“Our deal with DirecTV expired Aug. 31, but all summer long we were negotiating,” Davis said. “And as far as negotiations go, we were having fruitful, productive conversations. Both of us had different opinions on certain issues, but nonetheless, fruitful productive conversations.
“But then on the morning of Sept. 1, without notifying us in advance, DirecTV cut our signal off and kicked us off the network.”
But that story is somewhat different than what DirecTV had to say.
“We told Versus that we’d be willing to keep the channel up while we continued to negotiate,” said DirecTV’s vice-president, communications, Darris Gringeri. “And they refused.”
In my discussions with both sides, this is what I came up against, no matter the topic: One side completely contradicting what the other side said, with both slinging mud at every turn.
The only item agreed upon was DirecTV wanted to re-package Versus.
The channel characterized the carrier as trying to give itself the ability to take Versus away from six million subscribers who currently get it as part of a package.
DirecTV doesn’t dispute that, but sees it differently.
“At any time in August there was an average of 7,000 DirecTV households tuned into Versus (ESPN averaged 125,000 during the same period)." Gringeri said. "And then if we look at our internal rankings, Versus ranked 61st out of 74 ad-supported networks in the DirecTV universe."
Lord knows what “ad-supported” means, but 61 out of 74 sure doesn’t sound good.
“All that we’re asking is we want to pay a fair price…and package the service in a manner that reflects the value of the programming,” Gringeri said. “DirecTV has negotiated probably hundreds of programming contracts like this over the years and we’ve always been able to negotiate a fair deal that’s been equitable for both sides. This time we have to take a stand.”
The NHL is sweating now, but is admittedly powerless to do anything about it. This week, however, the league did issue a call to arms on its website for DirecTV subscribers.
“We hope it gets resolved,” wrote NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly in an email. “Both parties are great partners of ours, so we don't take positions.”
I don’t know who’s right, or even who’s telling the truth, or if there’s even one truth. Let’s just hope this whole thing is dealt with before U.S. fans – and those in Canada whose providers pick up the odd Versus game, for that matter – have to miss too many games.
If they do, here’s hoping DirecTV subscribers enjoy their NHL on radio as much as they do on TV.
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