Puck It Up: Versus Wants To Keep NHL

NHL gameThe head of sports network Versus brushed aside arguments Thursday that the National Hockey League would be better served by returning to ESPN. Criticism has come from NHL players and their union; they believe that ESPN's wider reach and strong promotional engine would boost the game's visibility and appeal.

Versus President Jamie Davis said that some of the players' unhappiness may have arisen from Versus not being available in the hotels they stay at while on the road. The network has worked with the NHL to address that issue. Now, the Comcast-owned channel is in the lineup at all--or most--of those hotels, he said.

Paul Kelly, the head of the NHL Players' Association, stoked some of the dissatisfaction with Versus late last year when he told a Twin Cities newspaper: "This sport has got to get back on ESPN. The marketing and sponsorship activities will flow from a good, solid national TV contract, which the sport has lacked now for a number of years."



"It's frustrating for us to read that," Davis admitted, as he spoke at an industry event. But he added that Versus has "a great relationship with the NHL, and we're continuing to build the ratings for hockey." So far this season, he said, ratings are near what ESPN posted in its final year carrying the league, the 2003-04 season.

ESPN failed to reach a deal to continue carrying the league after the 2004-05 season was canceled, due to a lockout. The network had questions, in part, about whether the NHL would recover its popularity.

Looking to boost its own visibility, Versus reached a deal to become the league's national cable rights holder. The network is now in its fourth season carrying the NHL, and has extended its agreement through the 2010-11 season. The deal includes games one and two of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

"Hockey players in the NHL aren't used to being considered third- or fourth-tier guys," said NHL COO John Collins, who also spoke at the event. "So when they have a sense that the sport is not as prevalent as it could be, and they have a share in the total revenues, they're going to voice their concerns."

Collins said the league needs to work aggressively to build its brand--"to sell (it) better"--and drive interest in the sport, particularly through new media. That, in turn, will propel viewership on TV.

"I don't think the NHL can or should be defined by the success of Versus," he added.

On broadcast TV, NBC carries the ensuing Stanley Cup games and other regular-season action. NBC has carried the NHL since the post-lockout season as well; it is currently operating under a one-year deal that expires next summer.

NBC and the NHL have a revenue-sharing agreement, where Versus pays a rights fee (reported at $72.5 million this season and more for ensuing ones) and keeps all ad revenues.

Versus is in some 75 million homes, compared to ESPN's wider reach--perhaps 97 million. If ESPN were to pick up NHL games again, it would offer the league opportunities to promote the hockey telecasts on its slew of sports properties, as well as "SportsCenter" and dedicated studio shows.

At the event Thursday, ESPN's Sean Bratches, executive vice president of sales and marketing, said hockey is still important to ESPN. The company continues to cover it in its news operations and to offer games internationally. (ESPN has an investment in a Canadian programmer and owns a European outlet, both of which offer games.)

"[Hockey is] an excellent sport, and it provides a lot of value across the board," Bratches said.

He did not comment on whether ESPN would bid for NHL rights in the U.S. again, but said: "We've got a great relationship with the commissioner's office."

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