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Sports on TV: NHL Wants to Ride Olympic Wave

hiestand-sigWhile it's lights out for the Vancouver Olympic torch, it left lots of sparks that could flare up. A look at what's smoldering in TV circles:

NHL breakaway? Before U.S.-Canada hockey Sunday, NBC's Jeremy Roenick announced it would be "the biggest game in the history of hockey" - a clear step up from, as NBC's Eddie Olczyk put it, the "tremendously tremendous" U.S.-Canada game last week.

And even before Roenick helpfully warned viewers before overtime that "I'm going to cry," the game was a shoo-in to get huge TV ratings. Begging the question: As Olympians put their NHL jerseys back on, could this be a turning point for TV hockey?

OK, ask yourself: What NHL team will U.S. star goalie Ryan Miller - coolly saying on NBC after Sunday's loss that it "was just another hockey game" - now rejoin? The big question is how many viewers know it's the Buffalo Sabres and want to stay tuned.

Versus, the NHL's U.S. cable TV carrier, airs seven NHL games today through Thursday - including the Sabres vs. Washington Capitals on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET) - to try and leverage Olympic luster. NBC, which airs NHL weekend games and has flexible scheduling, airs Detroit Red Wings-Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday and Washington-Chicago on March 14.

The Olympics are filled with sports that attract big TV audiences during the Games and then return to their niche followings. Versus, which this season has averaged about 278,000 viewers per NHL game, has pretty much nowhere to go but up. This might be the best shot ever for the NHL's TV prospects. Begging another question: Do you believe in miracles?

The clues for future Games: Like forensic pathologists probing for evidence, networks interested in bidding for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, can pore over NBC's Vancouver ratings for clues about how the future Games might play out on TV. U.S. TV rights for those Games, as well as for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Games, might be sold this year, although there is no set timetable. (NBC has the 2012 London Summer Games.)

NBC had an ace going into Vancouver - the site is in one of the U.S. time zones - and was dealt a great hand by U.S. athletes winning more medals than any national team at any Winter Games and the U.S. winning the medal count for the first time since 1932.

NBC's prime-time coverage through Saturday averaged 13.9 percent of U.S. households. That's up only 13 percent from its prime-time coverage of Torino in 2006, the lowest-rated Games since 1988, and well off ratings for other recent Winter Games.

Meaning? Good question. NBC paid $820 million for Vancouver and estimated it would lose about $250 million. Consider that Sochi's time zone is eight hours ahead of the U.S. East Coast. Then, consult your Ouija board about how U.S. athletes might fare there and what the network TV ad market will be like in 2014 and you'll be playing the home version of Olympic TV bidding.

As NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said on NBC Friday about NHL players being in the 2014 Games: "It's an open question. . . . NBC hasn't decided if it's coming back."

The afterglow: NBC, after the closing ceremony Sunday gave a nifty lead-in to its new Marriage Ref, will see how many viewers will want to watch a show tattooed into their brains during the Games. Networks mulling future Olympic bids can see if NBC can stretch its temporary ratings boosts on shows such as Today into lasting gains. Jay Leno's resurrected NBC late show gives Olympic curtain calls to Lindsey Vonn tonight, Shaun White Tuesday and Apolo Anton Ohno Wednesday.

In the longer term, NBC might face congressional concerns. Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) Friday questioned NBC limiting access to some of its online video - including live hockey - to users subscribing to a pay TV service or online provider that had Olympic deals with NBC.

NBC, whose open online offerings included about 1,100 video highlights, responded that it broadcast 190 TV hours and had lots of cable TV and online action. Kohl, noting federal regulators are reviewing Comcast's pending takeover of NBC Universal, said: "I fear this practice of locking up certain content only for pay-TV subscribers may be a preview of what is to come (with) TV programming shown on the Internet."

Ad lessons: Turns out Olympic viewers, says Nielsen, liked TV ads on Vancouver coverage that had . . . Olympic themes.

Go figure. The survey also supports NBC's prime-time philosophy that stories sell no matter when things happened in real-time. The top-rated ad was Visa's emotional spot featuring speedskater Dan Jansen's 20th-century Olympic saga. (NBC's own research found that 35 percent of all viewers - including 25 percent of males - said they cried watching Vancouver coverage.)

Shifting gears: CBS' NCAA men's basketball tournament depends on casual viewers being drawn to tune in to see the sport's brand names.

That could be a problem, given marquees such as UCLA, North Carolina, Connecticut and Arizona - who, collectively, made 15 Final Four appearances in the past 13 years - might miss CBS' Madness. But, says ESPN's Dick Vitale, not to worry: "The unpredictability might make for the wackiest March Madness of all time."

Big TV draws missing the tournament might fuel the terrible idea that the field needs to be greatly expanded. "Forget about it," says Vitale. "It's perfect the way it is." Dan Guerrero, chairman of the tournament selection committee and UCLA's athletics director, seemed reassuring on CBS Sunday: "The tournament, as it stands right now, is fabulous!"

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