Versus Picks Up NHL Option

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As its crew prepares for All-Star weekend festivities in Atlanta, Versus has renewed its rights deal with the National Hockey League.

The Comcast Corp.-owned service, which is posting improved ratings with the puck sport in the 2007-08 campaign, exercised an option for three more seasons, a deal that will make it the NHL's exclusive cable home through the conclusion of the 2011 campaign.

Versus executives would not discuss the financial terms of the deal. However, The New York Times reported that they are more than the network's current three-year pact that pays the league around $217 million, or $72.5 million annually.

"The new contract is basically the same," as the extant one, said Versus president Gavin Harvey. Versus televises regular-season games on Monday and Tuesday nights. It also provides extensive playoff coverage, including the first two games of the sport's Stanley Cup championship round. On a broadband basis, Versus shows game clips and weekly reviews.

"There has been real growth with the NHL for us and there is more to come," said Harvey, adding that hockey fans were in the vanguard of early adopters to Versus, when it was rebranded from OLN.

Broadcaster carrier NBC's NHL deal expires after this season. Industry executives indicate that ESPN/ABC is still expressing some interest in returning to the sport. NHL officials could not be reached for comment by press time.

Since acquiring the rights in August 2005 after the NHL reconvened following a work stoppage that iced the 2004-05 season, Versus has seen its subscriber count expand from 60 million homes to 74 million.

On the Nielsen front, Versus is enjoying a nice uptick. Through the first 29 games of this season, Versus averaged a 0.3 household rating and 261,760 viewers, up 50% and 34% from a 0.2 and 195,666 watchers on average, respectively, through the same stage of the 2006-07 campaign. Household impressions were ahead 27% to 188,363 from 148,088, while the delivery of men 25 to 54 improved 51% to 99,717 from 66,061.

Last year's All-Star game, played on a Wednesday night, netted Versus a 0.7 household rating. This year's contest in Phillips Arena, facing off Sunday Jan. 27 at 6 p.m. (ET), could do much better on a stronger viewing night and in the absence of any football competition -- Super Bowl XLII kicks off on Feb. 3.

Versus' coverage of the Dodge/NHL SuperSkills competition begins the day before at 7 p.m. The network is adding some production wrinkles, notably: a HiMotion super slow-motion replays using a system that shoots 300 frames per second, versus 30 for standard cameras; in-net goal cameras; and miking players, so the service's announcers can interact with the participants during the competition.

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