The NHL's television deal with Versus was made at the conclusion of the 2004–05 NHL lockout that caused the cancellation of an entire season. At the time, Versus offered a two year, $130 million contract (with a network option for a third year) that delivered guaranteed money for Commissioner Gary Bettman (ESPN, which previously held the rights, wanted a revenue-sharing deal similar to NBC's). Versus was expected to use NHL coverage to show it was a legitimate suitor for Major League Baseball and National Football League packages that were to be negotiated later in 2005, but they did not land agreements with either league. In 2007, the NHL signed an agreement to extend the NHL on Versus to the 2010–2011 season. Versus paid $72.5 million for 2007–2008 and will pay inflationary increases over the next three years.
Terms of the deal
Under the terms of the contract, Versus will show 54 or more NHL games each season under the agreement, generally on Monday and Tuesday nights. They will also provide nightly coverage of as many Stanley Cup Playoff games as possible (generally two per night in the first 2 rounds; the Conference Finals are usually played on alternating days), and 2 games of the Stanley Cup Finals Games 3, and 4 in 2009-present.
The network broadcasts at least 54 games during the regular season (usually two games per week, sometimes three or just one), plus the All-Star Game, Skills Competition, and YoungStars game.
At the end of the year, the network has blanket coverage of the playoffs, culminating in the first two games of the Stanley Cup Finals. Versus also shows the NHL Awards Show and first round of the NHL Draft.
Versus schedules a few doubleheaders during the regular season (consisting of a game in the Eastern Time Zone, and then a Mountain or Pacific Time Zone game). Playoff coverage usually involves doubleheaders throughout the first two rounds, except weekends prior to 2007–08, when NBC often televised multiple games during its broadcast windows.
The "Game of the Week"
Included in the schedule is a "Game of the Week" for selected dates. In this "Exclusive" time period, which was created in 2006–07, no other National Hockey League game may be broadcast involving a team based in the United States and, in most cases, no other game is scheduled unless it involves two Canadian teams. Regional carriers are allowed to air games outside Versus' exclusive window.
Like NBC, games aired on The NHL on Versus usually feature teams based in the United States, with the exception of playoffs. For the first two playoff rounds, Versus will occasionally simulcast TSN or CBC feeds depending on the schedule and match-ups, although it has made a commitment to offering its own production in most cases.
The selection of teams for The NHL on Versus is somewhat more diverse (possibly because there are more game slots to air) than its broadcast partner, NBC. Because of inordinately high ratings in the Buffalo and Pittsburgh markets, Versus has made note to air a significant number of games featuring the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins. Traditionally ratings-friendly teams such as the New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Detroit Red Wings, and Boston Bruins also get selected regularly, frequently at or near the maximum of nine appearances per team during the regular season.
Any regular season game selected by Versus airs exclusively on that network. During the playoffs, Versus' first-round and second-round games may be subject to blackout in the participating teams' regional markets (although they have exclusivity for two second-round games per series). Versus regains full national coverage for its Conference and Stanley Cup Final telecasts.
Versus also provides postgame coverage of every game they broadcast. The post game show is known as Hockey Central, airing from their Stamford, Connecticut studio
Versus removed from DirecTV
As of September 1, 2009, Versus was no longer available on DirecTV satellite service. DirecTV had released a statement and placed information on channel 603, the original Versus DirecTV channel, concerning the issues with Comcast.
On March 15, 2010 however, it was announced that a deal had been reached with DirecTV to bring back Versus to their lineup effective immediately. The network returns to the same channel and packages as it was on before it was pulled.
Versus' games rated substantially higher than any non-Tour de France programming that Versus had ever aired in comparable timeslots (rating between 0.2 and 0.3 during the regular season). Still, these numbers were quite small compared to ratings for most other sports on national cable channels reaching at least as many homes as Versus.
Versus' playoff viewership did not increase as much as it or the league might have hoped. Versus reached a viewership of 610,836 households for Games 1, and 2 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals.
Versus' coverage of the 2007 All-Star Game garnered a .7 rating (474,298 viewing homes and 672,948 total viewers). Ratings were down 76% from ABC's ratings in 2004, the last time the game was played, and down 82% from ABC's coverage in 2000. However, some of that significant drop can be attributed to the game being played on a weeknight (Wednesday) as opposed to the traditional weekend game, and the fact that Versus is a cable television network unlike ABC which is a broadcast network. The 2008 All-Star Game was scheduled for a Sunday.
In 2007–08, NHL audiences on Versus in the United States remain small, but have increased over the previous two seasons. Versus is averaging 246,154 viewers a game, up 24 percent from last year at this time. Over the past year, channel distribution has increased to 73.6 million households from 70.8 million. Conference Finals ratings are now averaging a 1.2 HH rating. Game 2 between the Flyers and Penguins drew a 1.7 HH rating, 2.3 million viewers; an NHL record on Versus.
- The Suitor Tutor, Part 1: On VERSUS and NBC, How Have They Done, and Where the Merger Will Take Them
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