NHL keeping its cool in VERSUS vs. DirecTV dispute

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Despite the looming threat of its American rights-holder disappearing from the channel lineup of the nation's largest satellite provider, the NHL seems not the least bit interested in the ongoing dispute that could lead to VERSUS disappearing from DirecTV on Sept. 1.

At least, not yet.

When asked Tuesday if the league was concerned enough to involve itself in the process, NHL spokesman Frank Brown simply pointed to the calender.

"Today is August 25. The next NHL telecast scheduled for VERSUS is Oct. 1," he said.

The "what, me worry?" approach may seem a little cavalier to fans whose only access to hockey is through the netlet, but it's also revealing about the nature of the dispute.

VERSUS is asking for more money from DirecTV. The satellite giant doesn't want to pay it. Here's the He said/She said:

"VERSUS' overall ratings are poor and have not increased nearly enough to justify what we're paying them, let alone the significant increase they're asking for," said Robert Mercer, director of public relations for DirecTV.

"Since our last deal with DirecTV, VERSUS has added many marquee properties and has become the fastest growing sports cable network in the country," said the network in its official statement. "Despite this tremendous momentum, we are offering DirecTV the ability to carry VERSUS the same way it does today at the market price for the network. We continue to talk and are hopeful that we will reach an agreement."

The war of words suggests that the potential for an ugly breakup is there, but the dug-in heels are just part of the process, according to one industry source.

"This is the way these things play out occasionally," the insider said. "When you have one side asking for more and the other is offering less, it usually comes down to a staring contest in the final hours. They'll get something done."

The source said she expected VERSUS to blink first. The real impetus may be college football, which starts up on Sept. 12.

"They spend a lot of time crowing about the fact that they've expanded their exposure to 75 million homes," she said. "Losing a third of that is a non-starter. DirecTV can get along just fine without VERSUS. VERSUS can't live without DirecTV"

Recent successes (including huge cable numbers for Games 3 and 4 of the Stanley Cup Final) might have emboldened the company to ask for the rate increase, but it may have been their decision to lock up the Indy Racing League for the next 10 years that demanded it.

"They went way out on a limb for that one," the industry source said. "They offer great coverage [of the sport], but it's not like Americans are lining up for it. The IRL is a non-entity to most people.

"And let's face it. The NHL numbers were good, but only compared to previous NHL numbers. It's not like they're trotting out American Idol on Monday nights. I can't see their demands holding up."

Bottom line: it wouldn't be surprising to see channel 603 go temporarily black, but expect the two companies to come to some sort of agreement well before Frank Brown's calendar turns to October.