As the NHL waits for the Comcast-NBC Universal merger to close before negotiating new TV deals, recent ratings may be driving up the prices. Versus said Tuesday's Pittsburgh-Philadelphia game was the most-watched regular-season game ever on its network, which began carrying the NHL in the 2005-06 season.
The network, which is owned by Comcast, averaged 750,000 viewers on Tuesday with Pittsburgh star Sidney Crosby playing. A Pittsburgh-Philadelphia matchup had also posted the previous regular-season network high a little over a month ago, when 730,000 tuned in for Versus' season opener.
Viewership Tuesday reached a high of about 1 million during the 9:15-9:30 period. The numbers could have been helped by a dearth of top-tier events that night on ESPN. In both the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia markets, the game made Versus the top-rated cable network in households on Tuesday.
The NHL is apparently waiting until after Comcast takes control of NBCU before negotiating its next TV contracts, when both its national cable (Versus) and network (NBC) outlets will be run by the same company.
It is difficult to imagine Versus allowing its signature programming to leave -- or another network other than NBC landing the NHL, although Fox may make a bid. The price for Versus could get much steeper, and NBC may have to start paying a rights fee rather than just sharing ad dollars. There is one mitigating factor: The NHL Players Association has expressed frustration that Versus has lesser distribution than ESPN.
Pittsburgh's Crosby has been getting even more attention than usual as he and Washington's Alex Ovechkin are part of a weekly HBO documentary leading up to a New Year's Day outdoor game featuring the two. If that annual event on NBC posts record ratings, NBC's price could climb higher.