Versus Nets NHL Through 2011

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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 NHL games nationally through 2011 after exercising an option to televise 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 [a total of] six years,” said Versus president Gavin Harvey, who declined to discuss deal terms. “We're looking forward to season three on Versus.”

Industry executives said that 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.

NHL executives didn't return phone calls by press time.

Some in the TV-sports community thought Comcast could have iced a third NHL season after failing to see a significant uptick in ratings since 2005, when it began offering regular-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 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 Media Research, regional sports networks owned by Fox Sports Net, Comcast and Rainbow Media have suffered an average 15% drop in ratings in their respective markets through Jan. 21.

Nationally, Harvey 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 got 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 the NHL rights would make Versus a contender for other high-profile pro league sports packages from the National Football League and Major League Baseball. But the pro football league elected to award an eight-game primetime package to its own NFL Network, while Turner Broadcasting System connected with a cable package of regular- and post-season baseball contests.

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