Davis Sees More NHL Growth Ahead As Versus' Stanley Cup Game Coverage Concludes

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Before the puck dropped on the National Hockey League playoffs, Versus executive vice president of programming, production and business operations Marc Fein talked about how cool it would be for Comcast's national sports network, which had rights to Game 3 and 4, to show the winning team hoisting the Stanley Cup.

While that scenario didn't materialize, Versus president Jamie Davis nonetheless was elated about the way the NHL postseason has played out.

"It's a great matchup; the first Stanley Cup Final rematch in 25 years. There was a lot of buzz coming in. Potentially, we could have shown the crowning of the Stanley Cup champion on our air, or be in the middle of very exciting series," said Davis in a phone interview from Pittsburgh Wednesday, the day after the Penguins beat the Detroit Red Wings in Game 3. "Either way, it was a no-lose situation for us."

Although Nielsen Media Research had not yet tallied the numbers for Game 3, Davis, during the Wednesday afternoon conversation, was confident the contest would yield the highest-rated telecast in the network's history. He proved to be a prudent prognosticator: Versus netted records with a 2.6 household rating and 2.96 million viewers.
As for Game 4 in which the Penguins knotted the series, Nielsen was experiencing technical difficulties and had not calculated a number for the June 4 Cup contest by press time. But the number promised to be large and put a nice cap on what has been an extremely successful NHL season. Indeed, the 2008-09 campaign, Versus' fourth with the pro puck league, was its best with the Nielsens.

"The momentum carried over from last season's playoffs. We started strong with our best regular season rating ever on opening night and then surpassed that record five or six times," Davis said.
During the playoffs, the network easily exceeded its own marks, with performances that harkened back to last century -- Versus scored cable's highest ratings with the conference finals since 1998and with the conference semifinals since 1997.

Given that success, Davis was quick to dismiss a query concerning continued criticism by some writers and subscribers that they still can't find the game.

"The network's distribution has grown to 75 million from around 60 million. And there's more to come," said Davis. "Not only are they finding Versus, they're finding the NHL on Versus."
Davis points out that Versus was a young network, when it picked up the sport coming out of work stoppage (the 2004-05 season was a casualty).
"We've been super-serving hockey fans since then and they love it," he said. "There's great buzz, excitement about the sport."
Some of that he attributes to current and what looks like continuing NHL broadcast linemate, NBC, which at press time, was the subject of reports indicating that it had reached a two-year NHL rights renewal.
"NBC has been a great partner for the league and Versus. They've treated the property well and helped create a lot of buzz around the outdoor game (Jan. 1)," said Davis. "With NBC's coverage of hockey in the Olympics next year, it's only going to raise the profile higher."
Asked about reports of ESPN's interest in getting back into the puck sport, Davis said there haven't been any conversations with executives from Bristol.
"Versus has a contract with the NHL [through the 2011 season]. There haven't been any talks with [NHL commissioner] Gary {Bettman] about that," said Davis. "He's only expressed encouragement, to ‘keep the momentum going.'"
To that end, Versus will sit down with the NHL and evaluate what can be done to enhance the product.
"After the Stanely Cup, we'll look back on what worked. I think the recap will show that it was a super season and we'll discuss what we can do to improve on it."

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