NHL playoffs a win for Versus

Stanley Cup ratings increase 18% this year

As the National Hockey League saw three of its final four playoff series go to a pivotal game seven Wednesday and today, Versus is benefiting from some stellar on-ice action.

The sports cabler that reupped with the NHL last year in a three-year, $70 million deal has seen its Stanley Cup playoff numbers increase 18% in total viewers and 26% in the 18-49 male demo, with much of that improvement due to the matchup between the Alexander Ovechkin-led Washington Capitals and Sidney Crosby-led Pittsburgh Penguins. Going into Wednesday’s finale, three of the games had gone into overtime.

With two of the rising stars in the league facing each other, last week’s game three of the series earned a record-high 1.49 million viewers for the network, becoming the most-watched second-round hockey game since 2002, when ESPN had rights to the NHL.

That said, hockey still falls far short of the popularity of the NBA. TNT aired the Lakers-Rockets game on the same night of Versus’ record telecast and scored 6.3 million viewers.

Through the first two rounds of the playoffs, ESPN’s coverage in 2004 — the last season the cabler had hockey rights — scored more viewers, but it had a larger subscription base. Each network had to black out several games in the cities of the participating teams.

Comcast-owned Versus, which rebranded from OLN in September 2006, reaches 75 million homes compared with 98 million for ESPN, which has deals with all the other pro sports — baseball, football and basketball.

Versus has neither the exposure nor the name recognition of ESPN, and some longtime hockey fans have said the league hasn’t been able to leverage the Ovechkin-Crosby matchup — some say it’s as significant as Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson in their heyday — into more headlines and greater popularity.

Versus president Jamie Davis disagrees. “People might say they can’t find Versus, but the numbers are showing the opposite,” Davis told Daily Variety.

When the Stanley Cup finals arrive in a few weeks, Versus will carry only two games exclusively, with NBC — which doesn’t pay any rights fees to the league — airing the rest.

Versus also carries IndyCar racing and the Tour de France.