After years of criticism, Versus plans courtship of die-hard fans

After serving as an executive editor for both and AOL Sports, Neal Scarbrough is now learning the delicate balance between bull riding, extreme cage fighting and professional hockey for the Versus cable network.

"And don't think we haven't heard from the hunters about us now being a hockey network," said Scarbrough, a sports media veteran recently named Versus' vice president for digital media.

Ask hardcore hockey fans if Versus is indeed a "hockey network," and the majority would argue against the claim. Since purchasing the NHL's cable rights in 2005, the Versus network hasn't exactly endeared itself to die-hard hockey fans in the U.S. Between the silly mistakes and the self-inflicted wounds to its reputation, there isn't a month that goes by without some impassioned rant about its failings as the NHL's cable home or some fan-driven effort in support of the NHL reconciling with its abusive former spouse at ESPN.

To many fans, Versus is a punch line; a jigsaw puzzle of unrelated (and fringe) sports that viewers still can't find in many hotels or sports bars around the U.S. Its hockey talent and coverage are much maligned, with even the most optimistic fans left frustrated by the approach to its most prized asset not named Lance Armstrong.

Not that any of this troubles the NHL's cable host, which is available in 74 million homes nationwide.

"I don't think Versus cares about that [criticism]," said Taylor Valentine of Horizon Media, who manages the Versus projects for the global advertising and communications firm. "They're so up and coming, they let a lot of that roll off their back. Versus knows they're not perfect. But everything they're doing is aiming to get there."

Valentine, whose firm is working with Scarbrough on some dramatic changes for, said the goal of the network is to bring "people who aren't the core fans" to the NHL, but at the same time "to engage those core fans" of hockey.

So how will Versus cater to the hardcore hockey fan and convert the critics? Scarbrough indicated that, like so much other successful PR efforts for the NHL, it begins with the cultivation and assimilation of both hockey writers and bloggers.

Horizon Media is a vendor working with the network's marketing department, doing everything from research to buying billboards to "organic marketing," which is a more viral approach to promotion within the media.

"[They] reach out to folks we know in the media business to write about it," said Scarbrough. "I think they've had much more success with blogs than calling up a reporter."

As Horizon had been marketing Versus to hockey blogs, through viral videos and the occasional dispersal of swag, it had indentified a few hockey bloggers that showed an interest in some sort of relationship with, and wanted to use those blogs as promotional outlets.

"As we were looking at the NHL season, they came to us and said, 'Hey, we've got some bloggers who really want to be a part of Versus and really want to reference what you guys are doing. We can sell your stuff through the bloggers,'" said Scarbrough. "And I was like, 'Hold it. You don't know who you're talking to. You're talking to, like, the Blogfather here.'"

Where Horizon saw a PR coup, Scarbrough saw the chance to beef up his Web site's content in a radical way. There were already three beat writers -- Chuck Gormley of the Courier Post (NJ), Adrian Dater of the Denver Post and Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News -- getting paid to churn out exclusive content for the Web site. Scarbrough felt the bloggers would add a different element.

"I don't want to use these guys for a campaign. I want to cultivate these guys for voices on Versus and for the NHL. If there's a headline that says, 'Bloggers are going to have a pretty comfortable home at Versus,' I think that's correct," he said.

"Believe you me, a year from now you won't have to look for bloggers who are writing for Versus, who want to write for Versus or who have written for Versus. We will have pushed all those levers."

According to Valentine, the following bloggers are contributing content to Jon Swenson of Sharkspage; Mike Chen of Fox Sports and Kukla's Korner; Reasonable Doubt from Melt Your Face Off; the bloggers from Hockey's Ladies of Greatness; and Bryan Thiel from the Bleacher Report.

None of the bloggers are paid, but that wasn't a deal-breaker for Chen. "It was basically presented to me as a once-a-month thing for goodies," he said, pointing to tickets, jerseys, memorabilia and the chance for press credentials.

There are also other perks, including interview opportunities for exclusive podcasts with players like Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks. "It's a fairly minimal commitment in exchange for some cool stuff, so I had no problem signing on," said Chen.

When it comes to making a destination for hardcore hockey fans, adding a few familiar bloggers is just a small step, said Chen.

"In order for Versus to become a successful hockey destination, I think they've gotta offer something unique. Tapping into the blogosphere is a way to create hardcore interest, but I'm not sure how much traffic it'll generate," he said.

Which is why Scarbrough has other plans on tap for the NHL page on, which should undergo a redesign in early 2009. One major improvement, he said, will be to the depth and access to video content. Scarbrough wants to make NHL content easier to find: "So if you're trying to find hockey video, you don't have to go through seven bull bucks and three cycling videos."

Also, he said there's been some talk about adding a major component to the Web site's editorial roster: The on-air talent at Versus. Currently, only color commentator Darren Eliot has a regular column on the Web site; getting Versus analysts like Keith Jones and Brian Engblom involved on the site is the hope. And there's always the chance talent on the Web site could one day be featured on the TV side.

"We just flat out have to do a stronger integration job. It's right there in front of us," he said. "We actually have an active broadcast arm. We have studio shows, and we have talent. We have to perpetuate that brand online," said Scarbrough.

There's also some talk about adding an NHL "insider" to the site so Versus can get into the business of breaking some news on the air. "The best way to do that is to find someone on the NHL section, and if that person does his or her job the right way then the TV stuff will follow," said Scarbrough.

"We're really not going to chase down or ESPN, but we're covering the League and we're the only network covering the League," said Scarbrough. "Our mission should be that when people come to our site for anything related to hockey, there should be some reason to stay and there should be people who know what they're talking about."

One challenge for Scarbrough is giving fans a reason to stay beyond the sports Versus covers.

"They have to decide what they want to be," said Chen. "If they want to be a true sports site, then they've gotta invest big-time in a site redesign that incorporates MLB, NFL, etc."

There are plans to begin coverage of sports Versus doesn't broadcast, according to Scarbrough, and the potential to grow communities around those sports like Versus hopes to grow around hockey.

"We really need to pull the site even with everyone else in the 21st century. What you see now is trying to get a little bit of traction," he said.

Versus has the rights to NHL games through the 2010-11 season. Ratings grew during last season's playoffs and this season's opener with the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs set a new standard for most-watched regular season game.

Clearly, there is positive momentum for the network.

But can that momentum, coupled with the aggressive reinvention of Versus' Web site, make the network essential and cool for die-hard hockey fans that have openly mocked it in the past?

Is Versus destined to remain a punchline for everyone from hockey fans to IRL fans? Or can a smartly written and enticing NHL home page reach hardcore puckheads in a way "Hockey Central" never has?