Well, today's the day, kids. The day we lay to rest the VERSUS brand, as the NHL's cable home officially becomes NBC Sports Network. From Awful Announcing:
The Outdoor Life Network has come a long way since its beginning in 1995. From televising fishing shows and the Tour de France as the signature series, to becoming Versus in 2006 and acquiring the NHL as its flagship sport, to now becoming the NBC Sports Network at 4:00 PM ET today. The official name change happens five months and a day after plans for the launch of NBC Sports Network were officially announced thanks to the Comcast/NBC deal.
The relaunch was supposed to begin with a Winter Classic postgame show, but with the hockey game being moved from 1:00 to 3:00 because of weather conditions, Versus becomes NBC Sports Network with a (presumably special) edition of NBC Sports Talk. In the evening, NBC Sports will broadcast a hockey documentary Cold War on Ice: Summit Series '72 followed by Canucks/Sharks.
The NHL began its relationship with OLN/VERSUS back in 2005, when the fledgling network offered the League more money than ESPN and a chance to have the sports spotlight all to itself. (In addition, the NHL hooked up with NBC for broadcast TV rights.)
Hockey had been pushed to the margins on ESPN, which offered the League just $30 million for a season of rights. Said Gary Bettman in "Those Guys Have All The Fun":
"We'd been partners for all those years; they built ESPN2 into this behemoth on our back for virtually no cost for our programming. We had just come through one of the most difficult and extraordinary times that a sports league had ever been through, and their answer, instead of embracing us and trying to make it right, was 'We're going to take another pound of flesh.' Unlike when Dick Ebersol came to the board meeting during the work stoppage and said, 'We know you guys have business to take care of. Do what you have to do and we'll be there when you get done.'"
VERSUS was … well, a frustrating television partner at times, but one that certainly gave the NHL more airtime than it ever would have had on another network. Ratings have climbed, production has improved. The VERSUS brand can close its eyes and enter the void knowing that it helped the NHL get to a better place.
But, like we said, it was a bumpy ride. Here are 12 things we'll miss about VERSUS …
Buck Hunting and Fishing Channel
When the NHL made the move to the Outdoor Life Network it was … well, a network about outdoor life. While ESPN was showing programming about pro and college sports throughout the day, and using it to promote its properties, the NHL was languishing on a network that had bass fishing on hours before the puck dropped.
The "Buck Huntin' and Fishin' Channel" jokes were plentiful. But here's the thing: Their weekend outdoorsy programming actually made the network a mint.
Can't Find The Station
For years, every single critic of the NHL's deal with OLN/VERSUS had the same battle cry: NO ONE CAN FIND THE CHANNEL.
This became an embarrassment for the League, as teams traveling on the road couldn't watch games in their hotels because they didn't carry VERSUS. Like in 2009, when Chris Osgood called out the fact that he and the Detroit Red Wings couldn't watch the Eastern Conference Final because his hotel didn't carry the network. So for big events like the NHL All-Star Game, the League would make deals with the hotels to add VERSUS to its channel lineup temporarily.
In the great "ESPN vs. NHL/VERSUS" wars, this was always a stiff punch landed on the League.
Show Me Your V
In Jan. 2009, VERSUS began one of the single worst social media campaigns and/or greatest misuses of double entendre in its short history: 'Show Me Your V.'
The network asked viewers to send in photos of them engaged in "extreme" activities while flashing their "V". When we all stopped giggling about the unintentional call for images of female genitalia flooding the VERSUS inbox, we realized that VERSUS was actually asking for viewers to flash and peace-sign-like "V".
The gallery was abandoned in a matter of weeks.
Bill Clement, Studio Host
For years, Clement was the top color commentator of ESPN, working with Gary Thorne and becoming on the most familiar voices to American hockey fans. In 2006, he became a studio host for both VERSUS and NBC, and … well, let's just say he revealed that breaking down plays during a game and presenting highlights after it were two very different skill sets. Clement was replaced by Bill Patrick in 2007.
An aside: We spoke to Doc Emrick about VERSUS on Sunday, and he said that the early days of the studio show were pretty frenzied behind the scenes — to the point where Clement was watching the game highlights for the first time as he broke them down live on the air.
The Great DirecTV Showdown
From Aug. 2009 to March 2010, a dispute between VERSUS and DirecTV kept the network off the satellite provider and caused endless bitterness from hockey fans. The two sides battled for months, with DirecTV nailing VERSUS as "basically a paid programming and infomercial channel with occasional sporting events of interest." Burn.
It got to the point where VERSUS was sending cute girls with propaganda fliers to NHL games. So no, it wasn't all bad.
"The Daily Line"
Remember "The Best Damn Sports Show Period" on Fox Sports Net? If you do, some of you are probably smiling about the antics of John Salley and Tom Arnold; others are probably choking down the bile.
When that show was mercifully canceled, VERSUS attempted to ensnare the orphaned lunkhead frat humor sports moron demographic with "The Daily Line", a 5-nights-a-week look at the world of sports that attempted to blend humor with nightly news and highlights. Attempted being the operative word. It was also an odd fit for VERSUS, as their hockey content was sporadic for a network known primarily for hockey. (Full Disclosure: I was an occasional guest on the program.)
The most infamous legacy for the show: Jenn Sterger, she of the Brett Favre sexting, whose job was to read emails off a computer and look fetching. (Full Disclosure: I nearly texted Jenn Sterger a photo of a pianist once.)
Our favorite legacy from the show: Rob DeAngelis, a.k.a. Rob The Numbers Guy, an un-telegenic sports handicapper who would bring the show to a halt like a boulder strapped to the back of a tricycle. "I'll take the Yankees layin' the odds tonight!" No one cares.
Surviving this program: Host Liam McHugh, who is gradually a very solid and appealing studio host on NBC's NHL coverage. Phoenix from the ashes, that one.
Brian Engblom's Hair
Brian Engblom was, for some reason, used as a studio analyst for VERSUS with Keith Jones. He never really said anything controversial or memorable. His lasting legacy on the network was … his hair.
Rumpelstiltskin wants to spin that straw into gold.
Mike Chen broke down the evolution of Engblom's mop back in 2009. He's currently a "between the benches" analyst for NBC Sports Network. Alas, he has tamed his Dubai-dust-storm of a coif.
Hey, did you see that hilarious clip on YouTube where the guy in the softball beer league gets hit in the how-do-you-do by a flying bat? Well, the glory of VERSUS "Sports Soup" was that you could see it again weeks after the clip went viral and everyone stopped laughing.
Produced by the folks who gave us "The Soup" on E!, where having the show shot in front of a green screen and the crew acting as a guffawing audience somehow seemed more entertaining. Probably because the clips are actually funny.
Def Leppard, Stanley Cup Fail
Pissing Off Lance Armstrong
Other than the NHL, VERSUS/OLN was best known for the Tour de France early on in its network life, which meant copious amounts of Lance Armstrong.
In May 2010, VERSUS was covering the Tour of California cycling race. It was two kilometers from finishing when the clock struck 7 p.m.; that's when the network cut away to Game 2 of the playoff series between the Montreal Canadiens and the Philadelphia Flyers … which was simply pregame interviews at that point.
The decision by Versus to leave immediately for hockey was a contractual obligation, according to a company spokesperson. Race spokesman Michael Roth blamed rider fatigue from rain in an earlier stage for the slow pace for Tuesday's third stage. The race was replayed on Versus after the Canadiens-Flyers game had ended.
Cycling fans were enraged … as was Lance Armstrong.
Never upset your network stars.
"Sports Jobs with Junior Seau"
The former San Diego Chargers linebacker tries his hand at a variety of different jobs in sports on a blatant ripoff of Mike Rowe's "Dirty Jobs". Problem was that Seau didn't really do anything that outrageous. Wow, a former NFL player as an LPGA caddy! A Sports Illustrated reporter! A Dodgers Batboy! He was also the equipment manager for the Washington Capitals for one game in which (gasp!) he did laundry.
Their Various Bloopers and [Expletive] Ups
Finally, we must give a shout-out to the various graphical blunders, commentating bloopers and other assorted FAILs that hockey fans would smack their heads in frustration over. Sometimes they were just silly mistakes (see above) or bad decisions (that commercial where the guy throws his beloved Chicago Blackhawks hat on the ice).
That they've become much, much, much less frequent in recent months is a credit to the new regime and a promise that NBC is running a different, better ship.
R.I.P. VERSUS. You showed us your V.