Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby were not the only rookies to suit up when the National Hockey League returned to the ice last season. OLN also made its debut as the league's network home. The familiar faces and voices of studio host Bill Clement and veteran play-by-play talent Mike Emrick were among the personalities that helped usher in a new era of NHL telecasts.
Alas, the network has shed its rookie status and, on September 25, unveiled a new identity as it prepared to drop the puck on its second season. In an attempt to broaden its appeal and convey the spirit of competition, the Comcast-owned network changed its name to VERSUS.
Viewers that may not have been aware of the new moniker surely noticed the ubiquitous encircled "VS" logo during a thrilling season-opening doubleheader on Oct. 6. Those same viewers were exposed to many new features that are hallmarks of this season's game production. Not the least of which is bringing them closer to the players.
"Our overall philosophy is to have viewers feel as though they're attending the game with our announcers," said Mike Baker, Coordinating Producer at VERSUS. "We stress the personalized side of the players wherever appropriate so viewers can have a reason to cheer a particular player because they feel they know him as a person, and not just a professional athlete on a television screen."
Fans glued to the tube have literally had a better look at their favorite players as many of the 54 regular season games are produced in High Definition. But it is also good to be heard as well as seen. The network's enhancements of its coverage include microphones in both the neutral zone (traditionally a dead zone for sound) and behind the nets for better appreciation of the on-ice action.
"We've added more microphones to our coverage than last season, and now have more mics than any other broadcaster has ever had covering hockey," said Baker. "This combined with our tighter coverage of the sport helps bring as much of the sights and sounds of the game into our viewers' living rooms as possible."
VERSUS' game plan is not limited to the on-ice product. New studio features include Face-Off, a hot-topic debate between analysts. Plays of the Week is a musical feature showcasing the highlight-reel goals and saves that viewers may have missed. Also, VERSUS One-on-One is an in-depth interview segment that affords the viewer an opportunity to get to know the players and coaches.
More and more NHL fans are can enjoy these and other aspects of the coverage this season. With a jump in household penetration to 71 million from roughly 65 million at the start of last season, the network's ability to expand the product is certainly growing and this growth goes beyond the large markets.
"Having further expanded distribution will help immeasurably," said Emrick. "In many cases, VERSUS is available in cities and towns with minor league teams as well as cities with college teams. These fans will be further brought into the hockey fold as they see their own teams and then grow more interested in the sport played at the major league level. The cities where there are development league teams are often underestimated when it comes to furthering hockey's reach."