"We were severely damaged by the loss of hockey," Jon Miller, president of programming for the NBC Sports Group and the NBC Sports Network, said last week.
Hockey fans responded this month to the NHL's return - Wednesday's Boston Bruins vs. New York Rangers match was the channel's most-watched game since the 2005-'06 season - and the NBC Sports Network is now poised for viewer and profit growth, Miller said. "We will have a feel of a network that is much stickier," he said.
Ending 2012 with a whimper was not what the channel was hoping last January when it rebranded itself the NBC Sports Network from Versus.
Comcast had handed control of the cable channel over to storytellers at NBC to more effectively compete with sports-giant ESPN and expand viewership. With more viewers, NBCUniversal could boost per-subscriber fees paid by cable- and satellite-TV operators.
The channel had some wins: All-day viewers were higher in 2012 than they were in 2011, mostly because of the Olympics, and its airing of the U.S. women's soccer win over Japan for the Olympic gold was the NBC Sports Network's most-watched event ever - 4.35 million viewers.
Now, though, the still-wobbly NBC Sports Network faces likely new competition from Fox Sports, which is expected to rebrand one of its existing channels, Speed, into a 24-hour all-sports channel in 2013. A Fox spokesman last week said an official decision on the channel had not been made.
Fox Sports spent billions of dollars acquiring rights to college football and Major League Baseball games over the last year.
NBC Sports Network's big TV rights acquisitions in 2012 were Formula One auto races, which begin airing in March, and soccer from England's Premier League. The first Premier League games will be televised in August 2013.
Miller said he could anticipate the viewership for the Premier soccer games but said they "have never been promoted and showcased" like the channel intends to promote them.
The past 12 months could be divided in two. In early 2012, the NBC Sports Network restructured its programming by dropping UFC mixed-martial arts, bullriding and other shows. Channel executives described the viewership for those shows as "empty ratings points" because they didn't appeal to advertisers. "We could not use these to grow our brand and grow our business," Miller said.
Still, there was a price for this transition and prime-time viewership fell in January, February and March in 2012 when compared with the same months in the prior year, then rose in April and May, but plunged in June without UFC.
In the last half of 2012, the NHL lockout hobbled the channel strategically as the NBC broadcast-TV network couldn't promote the cable channel during the London Olympics or on Sunday Night Football.
Miller said that despite the difficulties, "We upgraded our schedule, adding properties and original content that are more attractive to viewers, advertisers and distributors." He called 2012 the channel's "most successful year ever."
In addition to Formula One and Premier League soccer, NBC Sports Network strengthened its schedule with the three-hour Dan Patrick Show and announced last week The Crossover with Michelle Beadle and Dave Briggs, a daily 30-minute show on sports, entertainment and pop culture.
NBC Sports Network is now shopping for more live sports rights and is interested in the so-called Catholic Seven college basketball teams, which are leaving the Big East to form a league of their own. "I'm sure that we will talk with them," Miller said.
Fox also is reportedly interested in those basketball games.
Contact Bob Fernandez at 215-854-5897 or bob.fernandez or follow on Twitter @bobfernandez1.