Are the NHL and ESPN Going to Have a Reunion ?

Ryan PickardCorrespondent IOctober 26, 2010

As most people know the NHL's television contract with Versus and NBC end after this season. As soon as this is heard the idea gets thrown around that maybe this is the year the league returns to ESPN where it has been missing since the start of the 2005-06 season. The contract between the league and ESPN ended after the lockout cancelled the 2004-05 season. Since leaving ESPN the NHL decided to strike a deal with NBC and Versus and have been with them ever since.

When hockey began on Versus it seemed like it would never really get going. There were plenty of problems with moving to Versus starting with the fact that many people simply didn't get Versus on their basic cable package. If they wanted to continue to be able to watch their team play when they were on Versus they had to pay extra to have that channel. Another question many people were asking was just how much coverage was Versus going to dedicate to the NHL?

According to the contract Versus agreed to show at least 54 games each regular season in addition to blanket coverage of the Playoffs and two games of the Stanley Cup Finals. To go along with these games the All Star Game, Skills Competition, YoungStars game, NHL Awards show, and lastly the first round of the NHL Draft was televised as well. Most games shown were on either Mondays or Tuesdays and on certain days double headers were shown. In total Versus did indeed dedicate a good chunk of their time to advertising the NHL and making it one of the things to watch on Versus.

Going along with Versus in showing NHL games was NBC. NBC has been showing games ever since 1960's mostly showing games on either Saturday or Sunday. Since the end of the lockout NBC has begun to show games on Sundays after January 1st when their coverage begins with the Winter Classic. Each Sunday after this during the regular season NBC shows three regional games beginning anywhere between 12:30 and 3:30 P.M. Beginning with the playoffs six weekends of games were shown as well as Games 1,2,5,6, and 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. For the most part NBC has covered the league well except for the fact that they focus mostly on six teams which include the Detroit Red Wings, Boston  Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, and the Washington Capitals. According to NBC the lack of teams shown is because of low ratings in markets or small market size.

To figure out if the league made a good move in moving to Versus I decided to take a look at the ratings from each year for Versus and NBC. During the first year hockey was shown on Versus they had the largest rating for non Tour-De-France programs rating between 0.2-0.3. Even though it was the second highest rated program on Versus compared to what they drew while on ESPN the viewership for the Stanley Cup Finals was down 39 percent.The very next year didn't see much of a change with an average of a 0.2 household rating. Finally in 2007-08 viewership began to climb up averaging 246,154 viewers a game which was a 24 percent  jump from last year. Going into this year opening night viewership was at its highest its been in eight years. 730,000 people tuned in to watch the Penguins take on the Flyers which was the most watch game on cable television since 2004. Clearly more people are tuning in and Versus is doing its job in marketing hockey to the rest of the country.

NBC struggled much like Versus did at first. In its first year after the lockout the average viewership was just 1.53 down 11.8 percent when ABC last showed hockey in 2004. For the Stanley Cup Finals the average rating was just 2.3 down 12 percent from the 2004 Finals.

The next year didn't fair much better, finishing with about the same numbers as the year before. Finally the breakthrough came during the 2007-08 season when Game Six of the Finals averaged a 4.0, a 111 percent increase over last years Game Six. Viewership continued rising as the Winter Classic received a 2.9 rating, the highest regular season game since 1975. To cap it off Game Six of this past years Stanley Cup Finals between the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers drew a rating of 4.7 the highest since 1974. Rating took a while to climb but looking at the numbers its clear that more people are tuning into hockey on NBC.

With all this said should the NHL renew their deal with Versus at the end of the season or should they make the move to ESPN if they are given the chance. Their are plenty of pros and cons going to ESPN or staying with Versus. If the league decided to stay with Versus will they be able to strike a deal to show more than games on just Mondays and Tuesdays and will Versus be made available to everyone? If the league decides to move to ESPN will their rating go up or will they become lost with all the other show that ESPN covers? There are plenty of questions that need to be answered and there is time for that but for now it appears as though hockey is on the up and up.

What is your opinion on the topic?