We can all quibble over the quality of NHL game coverage on Versus; for the record, we believe that that in-game analysis and presentation has improved over time while the studio segments continue to underwhelm. And we proudly lead the congregation in the Cult of Razor Reaugh.
Less debatable are the obvious deficiencies for the network itself: Its accessibility for casual fans and its ability to grow hockey beyond a cable niche that lines the pockets of the NHL. Like when Detroit Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood recently became the latest to proclaim that his hotel room didn't carry Versus, and hence he was left to follow playoff games on his phone.
Then there's Paul Kelly, NHLPA executive director, who has torpedoed Versus with regularity while carrying the torch for a return to ESPN. At the Sports Lawyers Association on May 16, Kelly proclaimed that both NBC and Versus weren't doing enough to promote the players; according to Sports Business Journal, Kelly praised Versus for its improvements in access but ultimately proclaimed:
"It is not ESPN," Kelly said. "It doesn't have a sports highlight show. It doesn't have a lot of properties people want to tune in to, unless you are a hunter or a fisherman or you like turtle wrestling." (Ed. Note: Zing!)
Versus President Jamie Davis, responding to Kelly's comments, said Versus made a significant commitment to the NHL when it agreed to a deal to take it over from ESPN in 2005. Versus "has televised significantly more hours of hockey coverage per night in the first two rounds of the playoffs this year than ESPN did in the same time span during the last several years of their deal."
Total viewership for NHL regular-season games on Versus increased by 20 percent this year, and viewer numbers are up by 35 percent through the first two rounds of the playoffs.
While he may have alienated the all-important turtle-wrestling segment of NHL fandom, Kelly makes the point we've been making since the Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Washington Capitals Eastern Conference semifinals series failed to break through to the mainstream with the force (see Rangers, 1994) we felt it could: That the rest of the Versus lineup doesn't bring enough new eyes to hockey.
Again, the ratings were good ... for Versus. ESPN, with its collection of live sports news and debate programming during the day, attracts the kinds of viewers who might be enticed to watch Sidney Crosby against Alexander Ovechkin if the Disney promotional machine is behind the broadcast. The ratings should have been ESPN-good.
Maybe this dynamic changes if Versus finally lands that elusive glamour property, like something from the NFL. Until then, it's still the channel you can't find on your cable box or in your hotel; the network that gives us "fans" on Web cams while ESPN's on its 12th hour of SportsCenter self-promotion.