"A big part of [the problem] was the relocation to a new station with a much smaller viewership than ESPN's," Bradley says. "The challenge [now] for the league is getting people to know that Versus is the home of the NHL. To do that, the NHL has to focus on creating a core audience at the gate. Then, out of that core, a television audience will eventually grow."
And, unlike in the NHL's prior contract with ABC, the league does not receive guaranteed money from its partnership with NBC. Instead, the NHL and NBC split advertising revenue. The lack of a rights fee is an agreement fit for the Arena Football League - not for one of the largest professional leagues in the country.
Bettman, though, thinks the league made the right decision. "We knew we were giving up in the short term some distribution [in exchange] for better coverage," Bettman explains. "It's something you can't judge in one or even two seasons, but I believe we're going to see growth over the next few years."
Therein lies the fundamental objective of the NHL's quest for notoriety in national television. The league is taking a temporary step back to take two steps forward.
And there is reason to believe that the current ratings are not representative of the future state of the NHL on national television. Fan approval of the NHL is at an all-time high, attendance is up 2.4 percent from the season prior to the lockout, and the league garnered $300 million more last season than it projected it would earn.
Meanwhile, Versus is emerging as a significant entity in the sports broadcast industry. In its first year broadcasting the NHL, the cable network increased by more than five million subscribers, and its time periods jumped by double and triple digits in the ratings, thanks to its hockey coverage.
"When we got the NHL, it was a complete game-changer for our business," Harvey says. "Ask anyone - they'd kill to have the numbers we had in our first season."
When the network inked its deal with the league last year, it only had six weeks to integrate an existing NHL schedule into its broadcast lineup. Everything from assembling a broadcast team to developing a marketing campaign was done in shotgun fashion.
"Nobody knew what was going to happen," Harvey says. "Imagine what you've got to get done to present a couple of games on a major sport in a short amount of time. What we accomplished gives me a lot of hope for season two."
Now, Versus has had the proper amount of preparation time to devote itself to six hours of coverage per NHL telecast, which includes shoulder programming, doubleheaders, and wrap-up shows. Never before has the NHL been covered so extensively, and it's that type of attention that Bettman believes will eventually boost the ratings.
"Versus is committed to a growing game, and we are more important to Versus than we were to any other of our prior partners," he says. "Instead of being one among many, like most sports are on other networks, Versus gives us an opportunity to shine."
This season, Versus is airing 54 games, including 24 that are on when no other game is scheduled, giving the league a true game-of-the-week, akin to ESPN's Monday Night Football.
"The sports broadcasting world is constantly changing, and there is always hope in sight," Bradley says. "Who thought 20 years ago that the NFL would be on ESPN, or that TNT would have the NBA?"
And NBC is doing its part to give the NHL every opportunity to succeed. NBC, which earned a profit from last season’s NHL coverage, is rewarding the league with an expansion of its broadcast schedule from six weekend dates to nine. The additional games provide the NHL with the most regular-season broadcast coverage it’s had in the United States since 1998.
“The added coverage is indicative of our commitment to hockey,” NBC Sports’ Brian Walker says. “They introduced a stellar crop of young stars, and I know they are working hard to expose them.”
And with top young stars like Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals’ Alexander Ovechkin, hockey has the profile players it needs to appeal to the casual television viewer the way NBC did back in the Michael Jordan–Magic Johnson–Larry Bird era of the NBA.
“For a while, hockey lacked the players with universal appeal that you can build a fan base around — the type of player that basketball has in Dwyane Wade or Shaq,” Pilson says. “The NHL has to market those players so they become household names.”
WITH THE NEW RULE CHANGES and the anxiety involved in bringing the game back after a yearlong leave of absence behind it, the league now must focus its attention on fixing its ratings problem and developing a national television fan base. The NHL’s dedication to boosting attendance is the best shot at doing this. But for now, as Bettman will attest, it’s a work in progress.
“This past season was about relaunching and getting our fans back, and now we have the right foundation to move forward on,” he says. “The fans continue to come back, and the ratings will grow.”