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New Versus chief building NHL relationship

When NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman developed the seating chart for guests at the 2009 NHL All-Star Game, he made sure to reserve the seat directly over his left shoulder for Versus President Jamie Davis. It would be Davis’ first All-Star Game, and Bettman wanted the network’s new executive close by.

The pair have been steadily building a relationship since Davis took over at Versus in early September, and the event held in Montreal signified the latest step in their relationship’s development.

“Not only is this a new job for him, but he’s spent the last 12 years in the Far East,” Bettman said. “We wanted him to feel as comfortable as possible.”

Davis, who spent the last dozen years working for News Corp. China and ESPN Star Sports, watched just one hockey game during that period because there weren’t any games broadcast in Asia. Now, he’s tasked with overseeing the most expensive and important sports property on the two-year-old Versus. He takes over at a time when the NHL seems to have hit its stride on the network.

After some early challenges punctuated by criticism of production and distribution, Versus has begun to be accepted as the cable home of hockey. The network averaged 310,732 viewers a game through the first half of the season, and critics and league officials say production quality has vastly improved. Orlando Sentinel columnist Jerry Greene, for example, has reversed course, writing, “Versus does get a victory and some vengeance over snide snobs such as myself.”

The Versus-NHL relationship, now in its third year, has never been stronger, and both parties have been rewarded by it. Versus has used the NHL to increase its distribution from 53 million homes to 74 million, and the NHL has benefited from the more than $70 million in rights fees it has received from Versus annually since the 2004-05 lockout.

But the deal is set to expire in 2011, and Davis will determine how the final two years play out between the parties.

Davis brings a different style to the job than his predecessor, Gavin Harvey, who left the company when it relocated from Stamford, Conn., to Philadelphia last year. Versus executives say Harvey was known for his understated confidence, while Davis is known for his kinetic energy.

Davis has put that energy to work continuing the momentum the NHL developed during last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs. Last fall, he expanded the league’s opening day NHL programming to accommodate a doubleheader and coverage of a Def Leppard concert in Detroit. The Detroit Red Wings-Toronto Maple Leafs game subsequently drew a regular-season, network-high 577,000 viewers.

Commissioner Gary Bettman
(top) wanted Jamie Davis close
by during the All-Star Game,
Davis’ first as head of NHL
broadcaster Versus.

He is trying to build on that success by adding new programming to attract younger viewers, an effort he believes will fuel further increases to the NHL audience. He added original programming “Sports Soup,” a comedic sports news show similar to “The Daily Show,” and is considering acquiring more college football games and some college basketball games. The addition of the Indy Racing League, which joins Versus’ programming calendar this spring, should drive other new viewers to the NHL as well, Davis said.

“A whole new tranche of people are going to find us for the first time during the NHL playoffs, like what they see and watch us,” Davis said. “We’ll parlay that into the regular season next year with another tent pole event [like this year’s season kickoff concerts] and continue that momentum.”

For all his optimism, Davis still faces challenges at Versus. The NHL remains its most high-profile sports property, and some league officials would like to see talent improve on the network, while others favor more shoulder programming like the league had on ESPN prior to 2005 with “NHL Tonight.” There’s also the question of whether Davis would be willing to give up Versus’ cable exclusivity in order to share the NHL with ESPN.

Davis said he doesn’t plan to add any shoulder programming and isn’t open to giving up cable exclusivity to ESPN, but he may seek a third, weekly “bonus” game in the future.

“Hockey’s on a roll,” Davis said. “The fans are finding hockey on our network and would like more. If we can make it work and give them more, we’d love to do that.”

Bettman is encouraged by Davis’ early work. The two first met by e-mail through a mutual friend they shared in Asia. Two days after Davis started his job, he took the train up to New York for a lunch at 21 with Bettman, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly and NHL Chief Operating Officer John Collins. It was then that they hatched out the plan for the opening-night doubleheader, Davis said.

Since then, Bettman has worked to make sure that Davis feels like he’s part of the NHL family. That was especially true during All-Star Weekend.

Bettman extended a special invitation to Davis and his wife to join NHL family and friends for a cooking class at L’Académie Culinaire on Jan. 24. Davis said the cooking class, which was hosted by Bettman’s wife, was the weekend’s most memorable event for him.

“I’m glad to hear that,” Bettman said. “The Versus relationship is a very important one, and we want to make sure that, organizationally and personally, the communication is open.”

Never has that been more important than now. Negotiating periods in the Versus contract open over the next two years, and the relationship Davis and Bettman have developed over the last few months could go a long way to determining the future Versus-NHL relationship.

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