Saturday, June 6, 2009

The NHL and Versus

As the end of the NHL season nears it’s time for me to defend Versus and their coverage of this latest hockey season. It’s a commonly repeated complaint that Versus isn’t a respected network and that for the NHL to be taken seriously, it must return to ESPN.


I don't understand all this garbage about how hockey needs to be on ESPN to be respected and accepted. I really don't think my neighbor is suddenly going to 'respect' or 'get' hockey because it's on ESPN. It doesn’t work that way. Guess what? The NBA is on ESPN and I don't ‘get it’ any more than I ever have.

Versus’ regular season coverage included national games every Monday and Tuesday. It’s a great opportunity to watch teams all across the league. While I don’t have an exact count, the Eastern conference did seem to be aired more, a bit unbalanced. That is a fair complaint. And the playoff coverage was every night of the week and double headers on some nights! There is NO WAY ESPN could give hockey fans that kind of coverage. Was it perfect? No. There were so many games during the first round that someone out there was going to miss games they wanted to see. The NBA approach was to start games as late as 8:30 and they were soundly berated in this market for that. So no solution is perfect.

The biggest joke about Versus is that no one can find it. Look, it is a network that is building itself. They will continue to get bigger and hopefully better. Hockey has plenty of fans and it doesn't need to go on every trendy network to survive. It will always be around and the people that care about it will find it on their TV.

When they started NHL coverage it was a hurried process. Namely because ESPN hung the NHL out to dry, declining to exercise an optional year left on the current contract. They chose not to renew that relationship creating a scramble to air the league. But a lot of the hockey talent moved to Versus and eventually the network was producing a product on par with ESPN. Some exceptions were Barry Melrose and John Buccigross. Bucci often bristled at the notion that he was a hockey guy at ESPN, he saw himself as more rounded. It was understandable that he was seen in that light, he hosted the successful NHL2Night, an excellent show. But he wanted to be more than just a hockey guy so he stayed when the NHL left.

The advantage to Versus is that they aren't trying to cover everything under the sun. They have a few niche sports and a lot of time to cover them. The Versus lineup includes MMA, cycling, bull riding, Indy racing… notice a high percentage of sports that require a helmet? Ah, a Real Sport network. Frankly, their slim programming lineup allows them to spend a lot of time on hockey. Now what's wrong with that?

On ESPN we have an enormous amount of coverage devoted to poker, basketball on trampolines, that is ridiculous. Versus is already heading down the same road as ESPN, trying to fill the hours of the day with 'original' programming, promoting it and even foisting it on us between the end of a game and the post-game coverage, as they recently did with Sports Soup. They're learning the big network ways, Sports Soup is ok, but this new show, FanArchy looks pretty low denomination.

I can't understand the high level of criticism of the network from hockey fans in particular. Versus will spend the whole break between periods talking hockey, no baseball, football or basketball. Look, nothing wrong with any of those sports, but if you are a big hockey fan its hours of nothing but hockey. What's to complain about?

But I say enjoy the sparse programming while you can before the coverage is like that of the other big boys, coming on mere minutes before the game and cutting out right at the end to move on the next obligation, like horse racing, or poker.

Posted by: From the Point

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