Riding momentum from record-setting regular- and post-seasons with the 2008-09 National Hocky League campaign, Versus managed to put up solid numbers with the puck sport this season, despite getting checked into the boards by a lengthy carriage dispute with DirecTV.
Even with a contract stalemate over price and positioning that kept Versus off DirecTV's air beginning Sept. 1 through March 15, the Comcast-owned network more than stayed onsides with the Nielsens throughout the fall. In fact, aided by extended free previews by Dish Network, as well as Comcast and Time Warner Cable in select markets, Versus not only rang up strong NHL numbers, but enjoyed its best September, October and November overall. However, when those freeviews expired in December, Versus began to take a hit.
Still despite not returning to DirecTV until the Ides of March, a span that saw 77% of Versus' national NHL game scheduled iced from those DBS customers, the network's regular-season ratings remained flat at a 0.3 mark through, with viewership down just 6% to 300,000 from 318,000 from last season, according to Nielsen data.
"We were certainly frustrated by the dispute and its length. And we felt sorry for DirecTV subscibers who couldn't watch the NHL and [our] other sports," said Versus president Jamie Davis. "It's water under the bridge now and we're received thousands of letters and emails from fans and subscribers thanking us for getting the situation resolved before the playoffs. Fans have been watching more NHL since the Olympics and they know they'll be able to find the NHL playoffs on Versus."
Davis believes that a promo campaign, touting the wind-up to the regular season and the upcoming playoffs, that Versus aired during the Vancouver Games, plusTeam USA's unexpected run to the gold medal game against the host nation Canada, have helped fuel late-season ratings growth. Those were highlighted by a 0.7 mark and 622,000 watchers for the March 22 Pittsburgh-Washington contest on March 22, the best regular-season contest in network history and tops on cable since 2004.
During 12 national games post-Olympics, Versus' household averaged improved by one-third to a 0.4 from a 0.3 with its NHL coverage, while viewership improved 23% to a 347,000 average from 283,000 for the 40 contests before the Games.
Moreover, since the contract situation was resolved and Versus was restored to the DBS leader's air on March 15 -- officials at the national sports service declined to talk about the contract details, but sources indicate the impasse was finally resolved as part of broader deals encompassing regional sports networks owned by Comcast and DirecTV -- the channel notched a 28% rise to 365,000 viewers with NHL telecasts from 286,000 during the same stage of last season.
Now, Davis believes Versus, which bolstered its roster by adding 16 non-exclusive games as the regular-season wound down as a means to super-serve NHL fans, is poised for another strong Nielsen run, when the NHL playoffs face-off on April 14.
At a minimum, Versus will televise 50 postseason games, depending on how the series break. The first round is non-exclusive, with Versus picking up two contests exclusively in each of the series during the second round. Then, full exclusivity skates in during the conference finals, before the network again televises Games 3 and 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals, which averaged 3.2 million viewers in 2009, the most for the championship round on cable since 2002.
With more viewers rushing the NHL post-season net, Versus will capitalize on its wider audience by trumpeting other key programming: WEC mixed martial arts fare; Indy Race League, including some 30 hours of coverage around the Indianapolis 500; the Tour De California, featuring Lance Armstrong; and the Tour De France, where the American cycling legend will engage defending champion, Spaniard Alberto Contador; and new weeknight show, The Daily Line.