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Hawk games snarled in corporate TV gamesmanship
By Ted Cox | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 5/16/2009 12:01 AM

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For many Blackhawk fans, from here on out the Stanley Cup playoffs are going to be a case of us Versus the cable or satellite company.

NBC will air Sunday's opening game of the Western Conference finals between the Hawks and the Detroit Red Wings locally on WMAQ Channel 5, as well as next Sunday's fourth game. Yet otherwise all games of the series will be carried exclusively on cable Versus.

And not everybody gets Versus, not even everybody who gets cable or satellite.

Versus, previously known as the Outdoor Life Network, bought into the NHL at a low point, after the 2004-2005 lockout. It now pays in the neighborhood of $75 million a year to carry at least 54 regular-season games, for which it also receives the exclusive rights to select games in the Stanley Cup playoffs, including the conference finals and two games in the Cup Finals.

Versus obtains those exclusive rights precisely to compel cable and satellite companies to carry it, the same as with Turner's cable outlets in Major League Baseball and the NBA or ESPN with its "NFL Monday Night Football" packages.

Yet, where the NFL makes sure cable games get carried on local broadcast outlets in directly affected markets, baseball, the NBA and the NHL do not. And there's nothing the Hawks can do about it.

"The exclusivity for rights holders Versus and NBC is contracted through the NHL," said a Hawk spokesman. "Therefore it would be inappropriate for us, or any team, to comment."

Now it gets complicated in corporate gamesmanship. Because Versus is owned by Comcast, Comcast cable systems tend it carry it as a basic channel to give them a competitive edge. Other carriers, however, such as WOW and satellite companies DirecTV and Dish, try to make up the carriage fees they're paying Versus by putting it on a sports tier or other premium service at an extra fee.

At which point there are two options: Pay through the nose for Versus, or CALL YOUR CABLE OR SATELLITE SYSTEM AND COMPLAIN. Of course, given their poor customer service and labyrinthine automated phone systems, see what that gets you. Make that three options: See the games at local bars carrying Versus, which also figure to profit from the current system.

Forget Comcast SportsNet Chicago, which while owned by Comcast (and in part the Hawks) is a separate entity with no rights to the conference finals and beyond. Although it's worth noting that the sixth game of the conference quarterfinals, in which the Hawks dispatched Vancouver, posted a 7.82 local Nielsen rating, reaching almost 275,000 Chicago-area households, both records for a Hawk game on CSNC, so the disruption in the shift to Versus in the next round figures to be considerable.

The third and fourth games of the Stanley Cup Finals are scheduled to be carried by Versus. Non-Comcast Hawk fans can only hope they'll be so lucky as to have to scramble to find a place to watch them.