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Productive ice time

Hockey ratings are up at Versus

By Chad Finn
Globe Staff / May 14, 2010

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In the not-so-distant past, Versus’s ratings for its NHL telecasts were like the Bruins offense without David Krejci. Big numbers and high scores were difficult to come by.

But there has been cause for optimism during the Stanley Cup playoffs for the network, which is savoring the growth of its audience both nationally and locally. Through the first 12 days and 18 games of the conference semifinal rounds, viewership on Versus nationwide was up 31 percent over the same time last year, according to Sports Business Daily.

The network’s most significant ratings victory came last Friday, and in this market. Game 4 of the Bruins-Flyers series on Versus drew an 8.3 rating and 328,000 viewers in Boston. That would be impressive enough, but considering the game was going up against a Red Sox-Yankees matchup on NESN (6.3, 223,000) and Game 3 of the Celtics-Cavaliers series on ESPN (4.1, 142,000), it’s easy to understand Versus president Jamie Davis’s sunny outlook (though it should be noted that the Sox and Celtics both were blown out early).

“I could not be happier with knowing that we had two fantastic alternatives to compete with,’’ said Davis. “And for us to be able to come in and do double the number of what the Celtics-Cavs game did, and a good 30 percent higher than Yankees-Red Sox, just shows how passionate the fans are about their Bruins.

“That’s one thing, but also what a great job we have done with the league to raise the awareness of the Bruins and Versus and the league in that market. There’s fantastic momentum that’s happening right now in viewership.’’

Davis referenced “momentum’’ several times during a 20-minute interview, and it probably is the appropriate word to describe the impact of the Bruins-Flyers series; in the three games Versus aired exclusively in this market (Games 2, 3, and 4), the network has averaged an 8.0 rating.

Yet it hasn’t all been smooth skating. Versus’s highest-rated regular-season game in 2009-10 — a Red Wings-Penguins matchup March 22 — earned just a 0.4 national household rating and ranked 44th among all sporting events on cable television that week, according to Nielsen data. And Versus is only now approaching the postseason numbers compiled by ESPN (and ESPN2) in 2004, the last year it owned NHL rights.

It will be interesting to see the numbers going forward, given that neither of the NHL’s most recognizable players — Washington’s Alex Ovechkin and Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby — will be playing in the conference finals, while Montreal, a city in which Versus is not available, is among the final four.

“Markets obviously do matter, and we’re very happy with the teams that are playing well, like Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia,’’ Davis said. “There are other markets, though, that don’t necessarily have the largest national following in the US, like Montreal and Vancouver, Canadian teams, both playing unbelievable hockey. But those markets don’t have as large a following here, and we’re still drawing great numbers.’’

In other words, it’s the games rather than the names that have the most appeal.

“People are now knowing to come to us for their hockey,’’ said Davis, “and they’re liking what they’re seeing.’’

Mother of all gaffes
Cathartic though it may be, it’s understood that griping about Joe Morgan is probably futile. The Hall of Famer and proudly oblivious ESPN analyst is in his 20th season at the network, has won two Emmy Awards, and even survived the 2005-08 run of the brilliant Fire Joe Morgan blog.

While there is some hope for his detractors that his time at ESPN may be waning — his contract is up this year and he recently accepted a part-time job with the Reds as a special adviser — — there remains little hope of him acquiring a clue in booth.

The most recent bit of evidence came during the Red Sox-Yankees telecast last Sunday night. The baseball headline of the day was the perfect game thrown by Oakland lefthander Dallas Braden against the Rays. It quickly became known that the story carried added emotional weight: Braden’s masterpiece came on Mother’s Day, when Major League Baseball was promoting breast cancer awareness, and it turned out the pitcher’s own mom had died of cancer while he was in high school.

Braden’s story was familiar by the time the Sox-Yankees game began — though apparently not to Morgan. After play-by-play voice Jon Miller voiced over highlights of Braden’s perfecto during an early inning, Morgan said, “That’s a pretty good present, right? For your mom?’’

Rather than responding, Miller said, “That’s a called strike to Dustin Pedroia,’’ then filibustered on Braden’s well-documented spat with Alex Rodriguez for a few moments before Orel Hershiser, the third man in the booth, spoke up.

“A memorable day for Dallas Braden in two ways,’’ Hershiser said. “The perfect game, and on Mother’s Day, his mother is deceased. But his grandmother was in the ballpark, and grandma had a great day with Dallas.’’

Save, Hershiser. Meanwhile, Morgan went silent for nearly five minutes. From this vantage point, it was the most enjoyable stretch of the broadcast.

Taking turns
A couple of readers asked why Joe Castiglione, always introduced as “voice of the Red Sox’’ on radio broadcasts on WEEI, no longer does the play-by-play in the first inning every night. Here is the explanation offered by WEEI program director Jason Wolfe: “I wanted [Castiglione and Dave O’Brien] to split time leading the broadcast. Dave [usually] misses Wednesdays due to his ESPN commitments, so when they’re together, three days a week Joe leads the show and three days a week Dave leads the show. They’re both outstanding announcers and it’s working out exceptionally well.’’

Chad Finn can be reached at finn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globechadfinn.

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