With All-Star festivities concluding in Atlanta this past weekend, Versus is looking forward to the second half of what has been a strong ratings season and firming up its new rights deal with the National Hockey League.
The Comcast-owned sports network has exercised an option for three more seasons, ensuring it will be the NHL’s exclusive national cable home through the conclusion of the 2011 campaign.
Versus executives would not discuss the financial terms of the deal. The New York Times reported, though, that the pact would be pricier than the current three-year agreement that pays the league around $217 million, or $72.5 million annually.
“The new contract is basically the same” as the extant one, Versus president Gavin Harvey said.
Versus televises regular-season games on Monday and Tuesday nights. It also presents extensive playoff action, including exclusive coverage of the conference finals and the first two games of the sport’s Stanley Cup championship round.
On broadband, Versus shows game clips and weekly reviews.
Harvey said Versus does have the right to televise additional regular-season contests, an issue that was addressed by Versus executive vice president of programming, production and business operations Marc Fein during a conference call last Thursday to discuss Versus coverage of skills competition and the 56th All-Star game in Atlanta.
Fein said Versus is contemplating more NHL studio coverage and additional game exposures. “We’re analyzing our schedule right now. We’re having conversations with the league,” he said. “A bow will be put on those decisions before the 2007-08 season is over.”
Meanwhile, some industry watchers indicate ESPN/ABC Sports still has interest in returning to the NHL, perhaps picking up some games for ESPN2 from Versus’s cable-exclusive package.
Harvey said there haven’t been any conversations with ESPN about such prospects.
“Versus is proud to be the exclusive national cable home for the NHL and hockey fans. Our dedication is contributing to the growth of the sport with a season-long schedule of superior quality HD game productions, a dedicated studio show, the Stanley Cup playoffs and a strong partnership with the league,” he said. “We will listen to any ideas that could keep our momentum rolling forward.”
Fein, on the call, noted that any such discussions would have to be initiated by the league itself.
ESPN and NHL officials declined comment.
On the broadcast side, NBC inked a one-year revenue-sharing deal with the NHL for the 2007-08 season, and holds an option for another year. This season, the Peacock has stepped up its game. The network’s New Year’s Day coverage of the Winter Classic between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Buffalo Sabres at Ralph Wilson Stadium, home to the National Football League’s Buffalo Bills, drew more than 72,000 spectators and a 2.2 national rating, the most for an NHL regular-season game since Fox telecast Wayne Gretzky’s final game on April 18, 1999.
NBC has also adopted an NFL-style flex scheduling strategy, picking what it thinks will be the best matchup from as many as four contests, for its regular-season game in Sunday afternoon windows. It also has weekend playoff action, and rights to Games 3 through 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals.
“We’ll evaluate where we are at the end of the season,” said an NBC Sports spokesman.
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 to 74 million homes from 60 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.
The national numbers for Versus, which has also rung up strong local results in such markets at New York, Detroit and Philadelphia, have surpassed ESPN2’s results for 2003-04, the last season it carried the puck sport. ESPN elected not to renew its rights deal after the work stoppage claimed the 2004-05 season, opening the door for what was then OLN.
“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.
Last year’s All-Star Game, played on a Wednesday night, netted Versus a 0.7 household rating. The hope was that this year’s contest from Phillips Arena, slated to face off Sunday Jan. 27 at 6 p.m. (ET), would garner a better performance on a much stronger viewing night, and in the absence of any football competition — Super Bowl XLII kicks off on Feb. 3.
The night before Versus covered the Dodge/NHL SuperSkills competition, which this year included judging a la the NBA dunk contest for the breakaway challenge. The network was scheduled to add 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 micing players, so the service’s announcers can interact with the participants during the competition.