It's Memorial Day Weekend, and that means on Sunday it will be men and women drivers versus machines in the Indianapolis 500 on ABC and, later in the day, the NASCAR boys versus their machines at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., on Fox.
That's a good thing for motor racing fans.
For hockey fans, "versus" does not have such a favorable connotation. Versus is the cable television network that carries the NHL, and at times during the playoffs it has been fans and critics versus Versus.
For one thing, there have been distribution issues. The network is in 72 million television households, about 20 million fewer than ESPN or ESPN2. In the L.A. market, where there are 3 million cable households, only 50% get Versus.
Then came last Saturday, when NBC was televising Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals and then the Preakness. But the game between the Ottawa Senators and Buffalo Sabres went into overtime and suddenly overlapped the Preakness coverage. NBC, facing contractual commitments to sponsors of the Preakness, bailed on the game and handed it off to Versus.
But because of a human error, Versus was slow in making the transition -- taking about two minutes -- and so viewers who made the switch initially got a "Strongman" competition. Some gave up, figuring they had been strong-armed out of seeing the rest of the game in which the Senators clinched a berth in the Stanley Cup finals with a 3-2 victory at 9:32 of overtime.
"It could have gone smoother," Versus President Gavin Harvey said. "But not a second of game action was missed."
Also, critics jumped on the fact that NBC didn't stick with the game.
"This is a new low for the NHL," ESPN's Tony Kornheiser said.
Other critics yearned for the days before the lockout season of 2004-05 when ESPN televised hockey, forgetting it was the network rejecting the NHL, not the other way around.
It is amid this atmosphere that the Stanley Cup finals between the Ducks and Senators begins on Monday. Versus will televise the first two games, NBC the rest. NBC spokesman Brian Walker promises there will be no cutting away.
"The only situation where that was going to happen was the day of the Kentucky Derby or the day of the Preakness," he said, "and the NHL knew that going in."
NBC can't be blamed too much. The Preakness coverage drew 7.2 million viewers, the hockey game that preceded it only 1.2 million. In Canada, which has a population of about 33 million, the CBC audience for the hockey game was 1.4 million.
From a U.S. ratings standpoint, the TV matchup for the Stanley Cup finals -- Ottawa against the Ducks -- is hardly ideal. One team is from a non-U.S. market, the other from a market that gets dismal hockey ratings. The NHL on Versus during the regular season averaged only a .03 rating in L.A., which tied for 48th among the nation's 55 metered markets.
But Harvey, for one, doesn't see a bleak picture.
"The most important thing isn't where the teams are from," he said. "It's getting dramatic games and an incredible series like we did last year with Edmonton and Carolina.
"And if people will dig down they will see that this year we have a great matchup -- a defensively strong team in the Ducks against a powerful offensive team that skates like lightning."
Harvey also sees a silver lining in the ratings. He pointed out that his network averaged a .71 rating in L.A. for the five games it televised during the Ducks' series with Detroit, and that's up from a .34 for the five games that Versus, then OLN, televised last year during the Western Conference finals between the Ducks and Edmonton. Game 5 of the Ducks-Red Wings series on Sunday, televised by NBC, got a respectable 1.4 rating (2.2 in L.A.) and drew 2.1 million viewers.
Overall, Harvey said Versus' NHL ratings are up from last year and that the network is continually working on improving its distribution. He also calls Versus' high-definition coverage the "best hockey production ever seen on television."
Now it's up to the Ducks and Senators to deliver the kind of series its television partners are yearning for.
As for NBA playoff ratings, it's not a real pretty picture either. Through the first two rounds, TNT was averaging a 2.1 rating and 3 million viewers, down from a 2.2 and 3.1 million viewers last year. ESPN/ESPN2 was averaging a 1.8 and 2.5 million viewers, down from a 2.1 and 2.9 million viewers last year.
Game 1 of the Western Conference finals between San Antonio and Utah on ABC last Sunday got only a 3.0 rating with 4.4 million viewers. Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals last year between Miami and Detroit, despite being on ESPN, got a 3.7 rating with 5.4 million viewers. Cable networks such as ESPN generally get lower ratings than over-the-air broadcast networks.