Bettman’s Pet Project Wets The Bed

I was reading a link from the Los Angeles Times this weekend, you know, a newspaper – those things that used to be the staple of American media but have quickly become obscure thanks to the Internet.

This article talked about how there’s a fun dispute going on between DirecTV and the Versus Network in that Versus wants to charge the company more money to carry their programming and DirecTV doesn’t want to pass that buck along to their customers.

Since DirecTV doesn’t want to add any costs for their customer base and Versus, to this point, has been unwilling to move off their demands, DirecTV is going to drop Versus from their system on September 1st.  According to the ever-reliable Wikipedia (cough), this would mean 18 million DirecTV subscribers would not be able to see Versus.

If you’re a diminutive commissioner of a niche sport failing miserably to take advantage of the immense amount of talent in your league… This is not good news.

Robert Mercer, director of public relations for DirecTV, 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.

“It is a significant rate hike and the deal is discriminatory because Versus is not offering the same package options as other distributors.”

All right that sounds shady as hell, why would Versus play hard ball with DirecTV?

Versus is owned by Comcast, a cable carrier that competes with DirecTV. Versus responded in a statement released Friday that said it has added “many marquee properties” and has become “the fastest-growing sports cable network in the country.”

And there it is.

This is just a mega-corporate pissing match where Comcast is looking to bone over their competition by trying to juice them for more money.  This kind of arm wrestling between cable stations and companies is nothing new at all, just ask the NFL about how their network is doing dealing with Cablevision.

Then again, this turns out to bversuse really bad PR for the NHL when their hand-picked cable network of choice is booted off of DirecTV because DirecTV doesn’t want to cave into their demands and subsequently helps feed the anti-Bettman-esque sentiment from our media friends north of the border.  The anti-Bettman stuff I dig here guys, but saying that while a cable company thinking they’re wearing the daddy pants when they’re stuck in Garanimals is pretty short-sighted.

What this battle between Comcast/Versus and DirecTV points out is that Herr Bettman’s plan of leading the charge to help overthrow the Disney/ESPN sports programming empire is falling well short.  Hell, the reason the Los Angeles Times picked up the story about this struggle is because of the effect it has on broadcasts of Pac-10 college football, not coverage of the Anaheim Ducks or Los Angeles Kings.  The Kings and Ducks are combining for ONE appearance on Versus for the entire 2009-2010 season (November 9th Los Angeles @ Chicago).  Apparently Versus wasn’t tuned into or turned on by Gary’s plan of NHL Non-Traditional Market Manifest Destiny.

One of the few things I gave credit to Bettman for after his “lockout to end all interest in the NHL” was insistence to stick it to ESPN for their snickering and boorish coverage of the lockout.  Problem there being that ESPN was already the only sports show in town worth bowing down to and it’s only gotten worse now.

What kills me here is Comcast/Versus’ company line for Versus being the “the fastest-growing sports cable network in the country.”  Well of course you’re the fastest growing sports cable network, you’re the only one that’s going on the “broad appeal” plan of attack and your only competition is the 50 metric ton gorilla named ESPN.  If you’re running a cable provider and you have the choice between filet mignon from the best restaurant in the city and week-old meat parts from butcher in the alley, the choice is pretty obvious.

Do I like what Versus is doing to try to broaden its appeal?  Sure.  Embracing the WEC and its mixed-martial arts fighting is amazingly a step in the right direction because it offers something gaining in popularity that ESPN doesn’t have.  Working out some kind of partnership with the UFC and their seeming monopoly on MMA would go a long way to helping the network, but I think Dana White and UFC can do whatever  the hell they want to and make bank at this point. Carrying college football is also a solid move but there’s got to be more than just these things to go around. The NHL is the jewel of their network and right now the NHL doesn’t have the swagger to make things happen business-wise.

Versus, for the time being, has to be content with just being the niche sports network and it this economy, Versus doesn’t have the kind of programming nor the following to be able to boss anyone around, never mind the kings of satellite broadcasting at DirecTV.

If Comcast thinks that this is the right time and the right way to pick a fight with DirecTV by using Versus as their bargaining chip then that’s not going to turn out well for Comcast or DirecTV subscribers that actually want Versus, all the while the NHL is at the mercy of Comcast to get this figured out somehow.  While Comcast doesn’t exactly lose out all that hard in this battle (they do have other rather successful networks in E! Entertainment Tengblomelevision and G4) Versus is their sports programming horse and keeping it sight unseen by up to 18 million people does them no favors.

That said, getting that monthly fee from each of those subscribers would certainly help Comcast to pay for more hair care products for Brian Engblom and to make sure that the Versus crews can travel further west than St. Paul, Minnesota more than a few times in a given season or even travel to Canada sometimes.  I hear they like hockey up there.

It’s all too amusing to see that Gary’s pet project to make Versus the new overlords of cable now somewhat hangs in the balance, at least for this season. I wonder what kind of face he’s making while he has almost no control over this…



Now let’s see if Gary has any stroke to help put this mess to bed, but considering even Paul Tagliabue and Roger Goodell don’t have the ability to help smooth things out with the NFL Network issues with certain cable providers, I’m not going in the with the highest of expectations for Lil’ Gary to help out this situation with Versus.

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