DirecTV subscribers who don't follow the National Hockey League might be in for quite a shock when they try to tune in next week's Nebraska-Baylor game. DirecTV pulled the plug in August on Versus, claiming that Versus was making "unfair and outrageous demands" in their negotiations. It's an interesting dynamic in these negotiations, as Versus is owned by Comcast, the largest cable operator in the country, which also means that DirecTV is also Comcast's biggest competitor.
So what are those "outrageous demands"? The Motley Fool investigated and found that Comcast wanted a 20% increase in rights fees originally. Sounds high you think? Well, DirecTV was paying 21 cents a subscriber, so that increase would have been 4 cents a month. And as it turns out, Comcast even gave in on that before the previous contract expired, offering DirecTV the same price as before. Yet DirecTV pulled the plug anyway, as they wanted to move Versus to the Sports Package, which charges subscribers $12 extra a month. Comcast wouldn't agree to that, so Versus went black.
In any event, it appears unlikely the two sides will come to an agreement in the next week or so, so DirecTV subscribers will either need to find a friend or a sports bar, or switch services to either Dish Network or cable TV. In the end, it's the fans that pay the price for this disagreement.
Personally, I like Versus. They do a decent job covering the NHL, and their college football coverage is better than what passes for coverage by FSN. And looking around college football, the Big XII's arrangement with Versus is superior to the secondary agreements the other conferences have for televising games.
How is this, you say? The Big Ten has their own network, and the SEC has a blockbuster deal with ESPN. Even the Mountain West has their own channel. But the sad truth is that more homes can watch the Nebraska-Baylor game than some of the Big Ten and SEC games that are out there. Versus was available in over 75 million households nationwide before DirecTV pulled the plug on their 12 million subscribers. The Big Ten Network, by comparison, only has about 40 million subscribers. ESPNU, which carries some of the SEC games, is only available in 25 million homes. So while Versus isn't a household word when it comes to college football, more college football fans will be able to watch the Huskers and Bears. They may not know where it is on their remote, but it's there for the watching.
Now, the Versus agreement starts to look even more interesting when you consider the proposed merger between NBC Universal and Comcast. Integration between NBC Sports, the Golf Channel, and Versus, combined with cross-marketing of the Olympics and Sunday Night NFL Football could make for an organization that could actually challenge ABC and ESPN for dominance in the sports world. (Keep in mind, though, that Fox and FSN had some of the same synergy...and never pulled it off either..) In any event, I'm happy to have Big XII games on Versus compared to what other conferences have to offer. This is one deal where the Big XII did right by their fans.
Even if DirecTV is playing hardball with Versus.