The Case Versus...

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Saturday was a good night for Versus with the NHL playoffs.

The Chicago Blackhawks took Game 5 from the Vancouver Canucks and can now shut out Canada and its non-Nielsen family roster from the Western Conference Finals.

Back East, the Penguins overcame a pair of goals from Alex The Great, including one with just over four minutes remaining that sent it to OT. In the extra session, Washington defenseman Tom Poti, trying to prevent a cross to Sid “The Kid” Crosby, nudged Evgeni Malkin’s pass past goaltender Simeon Varlamov for the game-winner.

Now, if Versus is really lucky (the Red Wings will knock out the Ducks), the Caps will return the favor in Mellon Arena Monday night, and send the series to a Game 7 conclusion in the Verizon Center on Wednesday May 13.

The fact that none of these games will be televised on NBC is the crux of putting the biscuit in this blog basket.

As a revenue-sharing partner, the Peacock had no use for the puck sport this weekend. Not with the rights fees it pays for the PGA’s The Players Championship that iced this critical series from its Saturday and Sunday afternoon lineup. Certainly, a Tiger in hand is worth a Kid or an Ovechkin in the bush,

Yet, if NBC were truly a linemate to the NHL it could have aired Caps-Penguins on Saturday night. There, the Peacock served up a three-course menu of repeats from Law & Order: SVU, The Heartland and Law & Order.

Now, commercials in the Peacock’s primetime lineup are worth more than even a transcendent moment for the league, which averages around a 1.0 national rating on NBC. But, if Dick Ebersol had any real ties to Gary Bettman’s game (the NHL commissioner along with FS Sports Arizona officials have to be very worried that BlackBerry boss James Balsillie will succeed in his attempt to transport the bankrupt Phoenix Coyotes to Hamilton, Ontario), NBC would have put Benjamin (The O.C.) McKenzie and Heartland on ice Saturday night and presented Game 5.

NBC, which airs limited NHL regular-season and modest post-season schedules, will cap this year’s run with as many as five Stanley Cup Finals games. NBC Sports doesn’t have a contract for next year yet, but will likely renew to gain a promotional platform for its 2010 Olympics hockey coverage — chock full of NHL players — and the sport’s most high-profile contest, The Winter Classic. The third such affair is said to be heading to that hockey arena with that big green wall: Fenway Park on Jan. 1.

But there have been any number of reports about the NHL Players Association longing for the league’s days with The Walt Disney Co. and cries about the sport not getting the exposure it deserves because Versus’ 75 million sub count is about 20 million short of ESPN2’s base and 23 million light of ESPN’s.

Granted, Versus’ current regular-season and post-season averages lag ESPN’s last go-round with the NHL in 2003-04 by significant double-digits.

Still, Versus has been building with the puck sport, backing up its continued regular-season ratings growth, with positive playoff performances last season and into the current campaign. Versus’ Game 3 telecast of Capitals-Penguins drew 1.49 million viewers on May 6, making it the most-viewed second-round NHL playoff game on cable since the Detroit Red Wings-St. Louis Blues skated before 1.77 million viewers on ESPN in 2002. Through last Wednesday, Versus averaged 814,738 viewers for 10 conference semifinal telecasts, 38% more than the 590,229 viewers for the same period last year.

After the lockout wiped out the 2004-05 season, ESPN tried to lowball the NHL and Versus, then OLN, stepped into the breach for about $70 million annually over three campaigns. The Comcast-owned service is currently in the first of a three-season extension.

Over that time, the NHL has become a ratings-gainer and signature sport for Versus, which dotes plenty of love, attention, look-ins from Canada and pre- and post-game coverage on it via Hockey Central.

Versus has no comment about whether it has been approached about modifying its contract. For their part, network insiders say they have not been contacted by the league or ESPN about a rink return.

And what would exactly would that entail? Horse-trading that would take away Versus’ cable exclusivity in exchange for other properties: What a schedule of ESPN’s college football or hoops games?

That doesn’t account for ABC, which has winter and spring commitments to college basketball and the NBA. ABC notched a 16% improvement to some 3.7 million viewers for 18 games this past regular season.

More importantly, ABC and ESPN have hundreds of millions tied up in the NBA postseason, with the Alphabet the exclusive home of The Finals. Sure, there are post-May sweeps scheduling opportunities for the Stanley Cup Finals and the NBA championship to co-exist, but the NHL would again play second-fiddle to pro hoops on ABC during most of the the postseason.

While regional sports from Comcast SportsNet Chicago to NESN have rung up healthy hockey playoff Nielsens, the fact remains nationally, no matter what the outlet, the NHL is a distant fourth among this country’s four major professional sports leagues, relative to revenue and ratings. That won’t change whether the NHL playoffs and the Cup finals are televised on NBC, ABC, Fox, CBS, ESPN, ESPN2, or Versus.

Case closed.

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