NHL on TV: How Versus Becoming NBC Sports Network Will Help U.S. Hockey

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NHL on TV: How Versus Becoming NBC Sports Network Will Help U.S. Hockey
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Versus is now NBC Sports Network.

The much-mocked "Versus" label, currently synonymous with fishing and cagefighting, is the most recent non-NBC thing to go down the drain in Comcast's ongoing takeover of television.

Comcast Corporation, the largest cable provider in the United States, purchased the mainstream NBC channel on Jan. 18 to add to their fold of sports stations already stocked with Versus and the Golf Channel.

They then partnered up the trio of networks, as Versus and NBC continued their partnership of NHL playoff rights and the Golf Channel aired on NBC during the first major golf tournaments of the season.

Now, Versus is joining in as a name-identified sub-channel of NBC, who will, starting on Jan. 2, 2012, begin to change Versus/NBC Sports Network's old lackluster programming into a more NBC-like schedule.

Gone will be Extreme World Cagefighting (now part of UFC, which will remain), as well as, in all likelihood, the 8 a.m. fishing and hunting shows that gave the "Versus" title such a laughable reputation.

Instead, NBC Sports Network will soon carry National League Lacrosse, one of the up-and-coming sports of the decade, and also continue NBC's long-running in-depth coverage of Notre Dame athletics, particularly football.

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Next summer, the 2012 London Summer Olympics will also see a lot of time on both NBC and NBC Sports.

The name change will also give NBC an opportunity to expand Versus' exposure, which had been perpetually lacking since their inception as the "Outdoor Life Network" in 1995.

Versus only reached an estimated 75 million homes as of last December, compared to 83 million for the Golf Channel, 100 million for ESPN/ESPN2 and 126 million for NBC. Hopefully, those comparisons will improve for Versus soon.

The main feature of the new partnership, however, will be the continued sharing of NHL coverage between the two channels.

The National Hockey League has been broadcast on NBC and Versus since the '05-'06 season, but they should soon be receiving more coverage than they ever have before under the current deal.

The NHL signed a massive agreement with NBC and then-Versus on April 17 (well after the Comcast purchase) that will extend coverage of hockey on the two stations until the end of the 2020-2021 season.

All in all, getting more coverage on better networks with more exposure can only do one thing. Help hockey in the United States.

NBC's coverage as the Boston Bruins win the Stanley Cup this past June.

For one, the NHL is about to get a lot more television time, in general, starting next season. The regular season games shown nationally should increase from 63 in '10-'11 (53 on Versus) to an anticipated 100 next season.

In the playoffs, it'll only get better. Included in the contract extension is an announcement that all postseason games will now be televised nation-wide either on the NBC flagship channel or on NBC Sports Net.

That change translates into as many as 105 nationally televised playoff games in 2012 (if every series goes its full length) and will eliminate the scheduling issue that led to 14 of the 90 postseason games of 2011 not being fully available across the country.

Furthermore, the makeover of Versus into NBC Sports Network will create even more buzz around the NHL on NBC and Versus partnership that's already riding a colossal high from last spring's postseason.

Though early round TV ratings were down, the NHL hit their first peak moment during Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. While Tim Thomas led the Boston Bruins to a surprisingly thrilling 1-0 win over the visiting Tampa Bay Lightning, Versus set the record for the most-watched Conference Final game of any sport on a cable station since 2002. 

They additionally marked their all-time high in terms of viewership for a non-Stanley Cup Finals game, too.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Tim Thomas & Zdeno Chara hoist the Cup during the NHL Awards, which were televised by Versus/NBC Sports Net.

NBC's unflappable coverage of the following Cup finals between Boston and the Vancouver Canucks then hit a couple more records before it was done.

Game 1 became the most-watched SCF opening game in 12 years, and the conclusive Game 7 improved on the 2009 Pittsburgh-Detroit Game 7 by 14 percent and got the highest rating for a game of its type in the NHL since 1995.

The NHL will probably carry this momentum into the 2011-2012 season, where viewers will only have to wait until November, the earliest point ever, to get NHL coverage on NBC. 

Fans will also be seeing three games a week on many occasions from Opening Day forward on NBC Sports Net.

The league will look to take advantage of a looming lockout in the NBA—typically the most direct competition for the NHL due to a similar schedule and most closely matched TV ratings—to attract more viewers looking for a like sport to follow.

An NBA lockout would be an especially big boost to support in NHL/NBA shared cities such as Dallas, Los Angeles/Anaheim, Phoenix and the Miami area, all places where local hockey teams are trying to catch on.

Another major sport, the Olympics, might be able to help out hockey quite a bit as well, as it should create a boatload of traffic for NBC Sports Net next summer.

The increased name recognition for the channel could lead to yet another significant viewership increase from the NHL's standpoint during the '12-'13 year.

With all of these new-found advantages in hand, the goal for the NHL could soon be to restore their standing as a top-four American sport, a title which realistically disappeared after the '04-'05 lockout.

The brand change from Versus to NBC Sports Network eventually won't only open hockey up to an entirely new realm of television audience, it will also be a true factor in the expansion of the league back into nation-wide American recognition.

 

Mark Jones is currently Bleacher Report's featured columnist and community leader for the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes . In his 35 months so far with the site, he has written over 300 articles and received more than 345,000 total reads.

Visit his profile to read more, or follow him on Twitter.

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