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  • With treatment it’s getting on Versus, why would NHL leave?

    NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has a tough choice to make when his league’s cable TV contract with Versus ends in 2011. He can decide to stay with Versus and continue to be a big fish in a small pond. Or he can migrate back to ESPN and risk being the seventh sport on TV sports’ biggest platform.

    Of course, the league’s ultimate TV decision will come down to money. But all things being equal, I think the league should stay with Versus.

    I know that’s not a popular viewpoint these days, as everyone from owners to players to fans have bashed the Comcast-owned network and vilified the TV deal. Earlier this month, for example, Chicago Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz complained to the Chicago Tribune that Versus is in only about 75 percent of the Chicago market.

    “A lot of people don’t even realize that Versus exists,” Wirtz said. “You just have to grin and bear it. It’s a league-mandated decision. … Hopefully, the league will realize that access can only help the game instead of trying to funnel it through a very small eye of the needle.”

    The unspoken premise is that the league was much better off when it was on ESPN earlier this decade, and will be able to grow if it moves to ESPN when its Versus deal ends.

    But I believe hockey executives like Wirtz are expecting too much from an ESPN deal.

    The common thread I hear from people bashing the Versus deal — and there are a lot of them — is that ESPN has a greater ability to expand the sport. They’re probably right. Given the breadth of ESPN’s offerings (broadcast TV, cable TV, online, broadband, print, radio and mobile), it’s undeniable that the NHL’s message will reach a wider audience with ESPN.

    Given the NHL’s digital push and international aspirations, I think the NHL should consider selling a package to ESPN.

    But some hockey executives should temper their expectations. I’m skeptical that ESPN would give as much focus or care to the NHL as Versus currently does.

    When ESPN kicked the NHL off its network in 2005 — which is essentially what it did — its final offer did not even involve a rights fee. Versus swooped in with a deal that paid an average of $77.5 million a year, which was the best deal the league could get at the time.

    The NHL, the big fish in the small Versus pond,
    was not getting the same kind of promotion and
    focus at the end of its run on ESPN.

    For an idea of where that falls in the pecking order, ESPN pays the NFL $1.1 billion a year; MLB $297 million a year; NASCAR $270 million a year and the NBA about $500 million a year. Last year, it committed $124 million a year for the BCS and $150 million a year for the SEC.

    Do you think ESPN will give more promotion to the NHL than these other leagues that command more money? I don’t.

    When the NHL was last on ESPN in 2004, just before the seasonlong lockout, ESPN didn’t promote the league nearly as widely as Versus’ biggest detractors would have you believe. During that final season with ESPN, neither ESPN nor ESPN2 carried any shoulder programming. The Deuce carried the games and nothing else, usually sandwiched between college basketball games.

    But this isn’t about the overly high expectations some NHL executives have about what ESPN will provide. This is also about what Versus already is providing. The channel is in more than 75 million homes, up from 60 million at the start of its deal. Sure, it’s not at ESPN’s 96 million level. But it’s growing.

    The NHL is the biggest sports property on Versus, and the network treats it as such. Versus has pre- and postgame shows, and coverage from the NHL draft and the NHL awards show. While producers in the business still find the game productions lacking, there’s widespread acknowledgment that they are vastly improving.

    And the ratings are coming around, too. Total viewership during the regular season increased by 20 percent this year. And viewer numbers are up by 35 percent through the first two rounds of the playoffs.

    I asked Jamie Davis about Wirtz’s comments, and the Versus president admitted that he was disappointed, especially given the ratings gains Versus has shown during these NHL playoffs.

    Versus’ numbers are starting to compare to ESPN2 in 2004. This year, the first round of the playoffs was seen in an average of 375,000 Versus homes; in 2004, the first round was seen in 378,000 on ESPN2, though at the time ESPN2 was blacked out in the home teams’ markets, which suppressed the numbers. (For comparison sake, ESPN, which did not black out games, averaged 580,000 homes in 2004.) The second round averaged 505,000 homes on Versus this year, compared to 2004’s second round on ESPN2 of 492,000, which was also blacked out locally. ESPN pulled an average of 748,000 homes for 2004’s second round.

    ESPN was disappointed with those numbers, which were at a low point. But it’s clear that four years after the lockout, this is a sport that is growing.

    Hockey fans are tuning in to Versus. The main complaint — that fans can’t find the channel — doesn’t appear to ring true.

    “It’s frustrating when you get comments like that because the facts don’t show that,” Davis said. “If it’s true that no one can find Versus, I don’t understand how we are getting these numbers.”

    I asked an executive with one of the sports leagues how the NHL should handle its next round of TV negotiations. The executive pointed out that money trumps all — the network with the highest bid will get the rights.

    But he also said that the NHL should get assurances from Comcast that it plans to expand the network, from both a distribution and a programming standpoint. The league needs to make sure that it doesn’t outgrow the network.

    The executive said the league needs to get marketing commitments from Versus. He said Versus shouldn’t dismiss the complaint that the channel is too hard to find, because it is hard to find and it’s not available in enough bars or hotel rooms.

    The league should demand a comprehensive marketing plan designed to drive people to the channel.

    The executive also said the league should listen to Versus’ plans to grow the channel and decide if it’s serious about becoming a true national sports network.

    After getting the NHL, Versus tried to add an NFL game package. Since that deal fell through, Versus hasn’t landed any significant sports property that’s on the NHL’s level.

    Will it be a willing buyer as sports rights emerge?

    The NHL has experienced strong growth this season. If it decides to stick with Versus, which has made the NHL its top priority, I expect its TV numbers to continue to grow.

    John Ourand can be reached at

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