SBD/Issue 156/Sports Media

Versus May Face Competition For NHL From ESPN As Bidding Opens

This Season's Stanley Cup Playoffs Bringing
Increased Ratings To Both Versus And NBC

NHL ratings and advertising are "showing signs of growth," and the "uptick in hockey comes at a crucial time for the current rights holders," according to John Consoli of MEDIAWEEK. The NHL is "expected to start negotiations on its new television rights contract" later this year, and with its deals with NBC and Versus set to expire after the '10-11 season, ESPN Exec VP/Content John Skipper indicated that "he'd like hockey to return to ESPN and ABC." However, Versus President Jamie Davis said that the net "aims to hold on to the asset." Davis: "We took over the telecasts in 2005, the year after the lockout, and together with the NHL, as true partners, we have worked to bring the viewers back." Consoli reports Versus' regular-season viewership was down 6% this season, but since DirecTV started carrying the network once again in mid-March, "ratings have been booming." Versus averaged 365,000 viewers during the final four weeks of the regular season, up 28% from the same period last year, and its Stanley Cup Playoffs coverage through the opening week was up 21%. Likewise, NBC averaged a 0.9 rating and 1.32 million viewers this season, up 13% from the '08-09 season, while its first playoff telecast earlier this month was up 10% from last year. Despite ESPN's interest in acquiring NHL rights, one media buyer believes that the "completion of the proposed Comcast-NBC deal would make a joint NBC/Versus hockey buy just as potent as an ABC/ESPN buy" (MEDIAWEEK, 4/26 issue).

LOOKING AT THE COVERAGE: In Toronto, Chris Zelkovich wrote it is "pretty hard to top" the NHL playoffs. The caliber of play and the "excitement level have all justified the tremendous amount of air time the playoffs have gobbled up," and for the "most part, so has the television coverage." But Zelkovich wondered, "What is this fascination with guys in suits?" The CBC "focused on team executives endlessly during Saturday’s video reviews," while NBC earlier in the day "showed us the back" of Blackhawks Chair Rocky Wirtz' head during the team's game. Zelkovich: "Do they honestly think viewers are sitting at home dying to know how their team’s executives are reacting?" (TORONTO STAR, 4/26).

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