ESPN Who? Versus Hits New Heights With NHL Broadcasts
"ESPN dumped us," Burke said. "Everybody talks about getting back on ESPN, but I think Versus has been a great broadcast partner. I think their production is excellent and their distribution has increased."
The ratings in Games 3 and 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals -- the two games that Versus carried -- give Burke's words credence. Versus' two telecasts averaged 3,369,000 viewers, up 5 percent from the same games last year. Game 3 generated a 3.1 national rating and 3.6 million viewers, the highest-rated telecast in the history of network.
Versus also set new marks earlier in the playoffs. The first two rounds were the highest since Nielsen began tracking playoff viewership in 1994. The conference finals averaged 1.413 million viewers.
Not bad for TV landscape where more choices on cable, satellite and the Internet have resulted in lower ratings in recent years -- including the NHL's during last few years on ESPN.
"It's massively significant," Versus president Jamie Davis said. "Everybody thought the sport was down and out when we took over the rights for it following the work stoppage. Nobody thought there was going to be resurgence. After five years, we are now beating the [best] rating hockey has ever had [on cable]."
The NHL did have an inauspicious start coming out of the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season, although that was hardly unexpected. The top property for the Outdoor Life Network (OLN), as Versus was known at the time, was the Tour de France and it had only weeks to scramble to cobble together broadcast crews and create a studio show.
The product, especially that first season, was uneven and was plagued by complaints that OLN was hard to find and often was part of a digital cable pay tier that ESPN and ESPN2 were not. The rebranding of Versus and penetration into more homes -- outside of a hiccup that cost DirecTV viewers Versus for most of this regular season --- has largely quieted those early grumblings.
"People had to get used to us," said Versus NHL studio analyst Brian Engblom, who also worked at ESPN for 11 years. "There was the name change and that certainly [helped]. The hockey fans are great. They found us. They know where we are. That was a problem early on: Where are the NHL games being played and what exactly is Versus? We have gotten past that now."
Versus, which pays $75 million annually for the league's cable rights, has one season left on its contract with the NHL, which sunsets at the same time the NHL's broadcast deal with NBC ends. In fact, it's those over-the-air broadcast rights that could be in more doubt than a renewal with Versus -- especially with the popularity of the Winter Classic.
The NHL gets no guaranteed money from NBC and is instead in a revenue-sharing situation. Coincidently, Comcast, Versus' parent company, is in the process of acquiring NBC.
"I think the story the NHL can tell to potential sponsors and broadcast partners, now with the higher ratings, is a good one," Burke said.
NBC has seen a similar spike in ratings, even in Game 5 when the league went head-to-head with Game 2 of the NBA Finals. NBC had an overnight rating of 4.0, a 54-percent jump over last year, although still less than half of what the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics garnered on ABC.
Davis said he expects to sit down with NHL officials following the conclusion of the Finals and there have been mentions that ESPN could be in the mix as a secondary cable outlet.
"The more coverage we get is fine," Engblom said. "At Versus, we do Monday and Tuesday [during the regular season]. The way I look at it, there are five other days of the week. Why can't everybody be a part of it?"
Just don't expect Burke to lead the charge for a return to The Worldwide Leader in Sports.
"I felt when we were on ESPN that they buried us on the SportsCenter package anyhow," Burke said. "We were on right after drag racing and other things."