Versus Nets NHL Rights Extension

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Amid flat national ratings and sliding regional numbers, Comcast will remain in the rink with the National Hockey League into the next decade.

Comcast’s Versus network will televise national NHL games through 2011 after exercising an option to air the 2007-08 season and picking up the rights to three additional campaigns.

“We’ll definitely have the third season, and we’ll have [the NHL] for six years,” said Versus president Gavin Harvey, who declined to discuss deal terms. “We’re looking forward to season three on Versus.”

Sources close to Versus said the 71 million-subscriber network exercised a $72.5 million option for the 2007-08 campaign and then extended its pact for three more seasons at an undisclosed price.

"We're pleased to be partnered with Versus next season,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in a prepared statement. “We look forward to working together on the promotion of our game, players and the telecasts as we focus on growing U.S. viewership.”

The league would not comment about the three additional seasons.Some in the TV-sports community thought Comcast might ice a third NHL season after failing to see a significant uptick in ratings since 2005, when it began offeringregular-season games on Monday and Tuesday nights, as well as a number of playoff contests, highlighted by the first two games of the Stanley Cup Finals.

Through 32 games this season, Versus averaged a 0.2 Nielsen Media Research household rating, level with last year’s regular-season NHL numbers and its 2006 primetime average.

In addition, the NHL is having trouble scoring locally. According to Nielsen, regional sports networks owned by FSN, Comcast and Rainbow Media suffered an average 18% drop in ratings in their respective markets -- to a 0.78 from a 0.95 in 2005-06 -- through Jan. 21.

Nationally, Garvey said, Versus is “thrilled” with the NHL’s performance and expects growth as viewers become more familiar with watching hockey on the network.

“We feel like we have a great partnership with a major sport and the viewers have responded,” he said. “Hockey fans are really passionate, and we’re really happy with it.”

The network received a ratings bump with its Jan. 24 All-Star Game telecast, which garnered a 0.7 household rating, a 250% increase over Versus’ regular-season ratings. The All-Star Game was the league’s first in three years.

Comcast had hoped that the NHL rights would make Versus a contender for other high-profile professional-league sports packages from the National Football League and Major League Baseball. But the NFL elected to award an eight-game primetime package to its NFL Network and Turner Broadcasting System connected with a cable package of regular-season and postseason baseball contests.

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