Networks, NHL plot more puck pluck

Trio trying to boost sport's dwindling popularity

As the NHL drops the puck on its season this week, the league’s network partners are furiously trying to make sure the ratings don’t freeze over.

It’s the second year of a three-way arrangement between the NHL, NBC and Versus (the net formerly known as OLN), and the parties are in a mad rush to salvage the popularity of a sport that has threatened to fade from national consciousness.

Ratings for Versus were about 0.2 during the regular season last year, while NBC averaged a 1.0 for its Saturday games, with both numbers somewhat higher during the postseason.

But where last season saw the nets rush to get their programming approach ironed out ahead of the season — deals wrapped not long before play began — this year gave them full off-seasons to prepare their strategies.

NBC and Versus are both trying to take advantage in the same way as the league itself: with more aggressive play.

Versus is touting a host of production improvements, like more on-ice microphones and more high-def programming. It’s also landed a scheduling coup that allows it one day on which it will air the only game of the night, eliminating the often-powerful competition from hockey on local cable nets.

“Clearly, we had our issues coming out of the gate,” admitted Versus prexy Gavin Harvey of last year’s early effort. “But we changed a lot of people’s opinions about our network as the season went on, and this year, we think we have the best production hockey has ever seen.”

The NHL deals are unusual in the lucrative biz of sports licensing, which for most leagues has seen rights fees over the last decade move in only one direction — up.

The NBC deal amounts to a revenue share as the net does not pay any rights fees, only covering the production costs; the Peacock would start to make a profit as soon as its take of the ad revenue begins to exceed the production budget.

But for the Comcast-owned Versus, which paid the league about $210 million for a three-year deal and also has committed to spending a certain amount on promotion, ratings are more critical.

In fact, Versus’ entire identity depends on hockey, which is the most prominent, and relevant, programming net has bought since it began trying to make the transition from a field sports net.

Harvey calls the new name a “monumental transition,” saying that last year “our brand identity was limiting us.”

Versus has generally tried to mount tactical competition to dominance of ESPN, bidding hard for, but failing to score, packages for NFL and Major League Baseball games (though it still could be in the bidding for some postseason baseball games next year).

NBC, meanwhile, is pulling out some tricks out of its own for the NHL.

The aging of English-speaking stars — and the absence of a serious draw now that Mario Lemieux has officially retired — has proved to be a further difficulty for the league.

But the NHL has tried to take a page from the celeb-building book of the NBA by spotlighting more players off the ice. NBC will put more of a focus on showcasing young players, like the Penguins’ teenage phenom Sidney Crosby and Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, according to the net’s Brian Walker.

NBC will also air more live broadcasts from its Rockefeller Center HQ, which conveniently contains an ice skating rink that lends itself to on-ice displays. It’s a formula that works well for ayem shows like “Today” but which the net used only sparingly for the NHL last year.

The first night of programming, a doubleheader, saw some ratings improvement. Wednesday’s Buffalo-Carolina game scored a 0.4 rating, about twice the average of last year’s games, while the Colorado-Dallas game notched a 0.3.

“The hardcore fans, the face-painters, have come back to the NHL,” said David Carter of the Sports Business Institute. “The real challenge this season is whether the NHL and the networks can bring it to the casual fan.”

But how much any of the parties need a national profile is actually a matter of debate among experts. The NHL still earns at least several billion dollars in revenue, according to many estimates, mainly through sponsorships, attendance and local cable rights. NBC, meanwhile, is only paying production costs, so the risk is low even if the ratings don’t grow.

And the benefits to Versus even with low ratings may be substantial, if a little tricky to quantify. Despite the audience numbers, net has added about 6 million homes in the year since it first began airing hockey, bringing its total to 71 million and making it the ninth-fastest growing cable net last year.

“It’s nice to have a big national television ratings,” said sports consultant Neal Pilson. “But for Versus the investment isn’t always going to be paid only between the lines.”

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