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Versus Looks To Light NHL Postseason Ratings Lamp

Versus will carry ratings momentum into the boards when the National Hockey League faces off for the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs Wednesday.

The Comcast-owned sports network continued its Nielsen advance with the puck sport with significant double-digit growth during the 2008-09 regular season. At the same time, Versus will look to measure up to the major gains it registered with last year's postseason run.

“It's our fourth season. Versus is the established home for the National Hockey League,” said Versus executive vice president of programming, production and business operations Marc Fein, who notes the network is also benefiting from an expanded sub base that has grown 4% over the past year in surpassing the 75 million mark.

During its 56-game regular-season game coverage, Versus scored a 21% increase in viewership to 329,794 from 272,417 in the 2007-08 season, according to Nielsen Media Research data. Officials said the network reached 32.9 million total viewers, its most-ever with the NHL, and improved its delivery among men 18 to 34, 18 to 49 and 25 to 54 by 51%, 43% and 41%, respectively.

Fein also believes that Versus is scoring with younger-skewing sports like WEC (World Extreme Cagefighting), which helped it become one of the five fastest-growing ad-supported cable networks among the 18-to-34 set in 2008. Versus also figures its coverage of the Indy Racing League will fuel more playoff viewers.

“There's been lot of promotion for the Indy Car series,” said Fein. “We've only televised one race so far, but we anticipate it will bring a new audience. Hopefully, there will be some crossover to the NHL.”

Versus also is looking to push the puck along with a multimedia NHL promotional playoffs campaign, including a quartet of spots, which carry the “Every Second Counts” tagline.

With clubs still jockeying for playoff positioning at press time, Versus, according to Fein, would not finalize its opening-round schedule until Sunday April 12. However, it's looking at a postseason lineup that will include such hockey hotbeds as Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. It also includes the New York Rangers and the nation's largest DMA as the Blueshirts clinched a playoff spot with a 2-1 win over the Flyers Thursday night.

On the ad front, McDonald's, Cisco and Bridgestone are NHL official sponsors and new season-long advertisers. Taco Bell, Domino's Pizza and Honda are newcomers to Versus' NHL ad roster, with the auto steering a large post-season presence. Anheuser-Busch is a presenting sponsor for the network's Hockey Central post-game show, while Verizon and the U.S. Marines Corps have secured similar positions for its intermission reports.

At a minimum, Versus will televise 50 playoff games, depending on how the series break, with exclusivity skating in during the conference finals. Over 52 quarterfinal, semifinals, conference finals and Stanley Cup Finals games in 2008, Versus scored a 50% increase to a 0.6 average and a 58% surge in viewership to 661,669 viewers.

During nine conference-final matchups, Versus notched a 1.2 average and 1.29 million viewers on average, advancing 71% and 77%, respectively, from the comparable round in 2007.

The network capped 2008 with a 1.8 rating and 2.3 million viewers for Game One of the Detroit Red Wings-Pittsburgh Penguins Stanley Cup Finals and a 1.9 and 2.54 million for the second contest — the sport's best cable post-season marks since 2002 on ESPN2. The latter was Versus' top telecast ever in terms of both households and viewers.

This year, there is a switch in game assignments, as NBC will show games one and two before Versus covers the third and fourth Cup contests. The schedule opens up some interesting possibilities.

“Sure, we want a good series for the sport and NBC,” said Fein. “But it would be cool if the Cup were hoisted by the Stanley Cup champions on our network.”

Click here to read how some of the regional sports networks performed with the NHL this season.