Gavin Harvey wants his network to be bigger than the great outdoors.
Today OLN, the one-time Outdoor Life Network, is officially renamed Versus, a network about competition.
It’s moving up to a new set of rivals, from the backwoods to the big names in sports. Backed by its owner, cable giant Comcast, the network in the past year reportedly took a run at deals to televise Major League Baseball and the NFL. It snared the National Hockey League, the America’s Cup and boxing to accompany events including the Tour de France and professional bull riding.
“We want to grow this into a big network,” said Mr. Harvey, president of Versus. “We felt like we wanted to continue to be a leader in all the stuff we’ve been doing, the outdoor sports and the field sports,” he said, but the filter that determined what was on the network needed to be changed. Instead of “outdoor being the filter, it will be competition,” he said.
“People are watching a lot of things we had on the air-whether it was professional bull riding or the tour or the Boston Marathon or the field sports-they’re watching it for the drama that’s in the competition, not just because it happens to occur in a place where there’s no roof.”
To some degree, that puts the network up against ESPN, Fox Sports and all other networks with sports programming.
At this point, Versus would be something of an underdog. Although it has built its distribution up to more than 70 million households, it is still not as widely available as No. 1 ESPN, with a reach of more than 92 million households.
“I think it’s becoming a more attractive proposition, but you know there’s a lot of cable out there, and you do have ESPN, which is so dominant in that area,” said Andy Donchin, director of broadcast for media buyer Carat. “They’re like that Avis saying they are trying harder.”
Mr. Harvey thinks there’s plenty of room for more sports on television and that Versus is taking a different approach than its rivals by going in-depth with the sports it carries to appeal to the most passionate fans. With events like the Tour de France or the NHL, “We have so much in-depth coverage it’s a completely immersive experience,” he said.
The network is also increasing the amount of programming it provides on-demand and via broadband. Programming about hunting and fishing, still an important part of the Versus schedule, has proved to be one of the network’s strongest performers in VOD, Mr. Harvey said.
The retirement of Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong chopped ratings for that event nearly in half, which cut into the OLN’s ratings growth. So far this year, the network has averaged a 0.21 rating in prime time, up from a 0.19 in 2005. (ESPN’s ratings are several times that.)
Not including the 23 days of the tour, OLN’s ratings growth in households during prime time more than doubled to a 24 percent gain. It’s shown an even bigger 46 percent gain among men 18 to 49 with the tour excluded. The percentage gains are more pronounced in total-day ratings.
Last year, OLN got the NHL just weeks before the season was to start. Comcast reported that the cost of adding hockey cut into the profit margins of its programming group, but Mr. Harvey said last year that landing the NHL had a positive impact beyond profit and loss by adding distribution and attention. “It helped this network turn a corner,” he said.
This year, the network had more time to work with the league to get superior matchups on nights when it will be the only network televising hockey. That will be Tuesday nights early in the season, then Mondays after “Monday Night Football” ends.
Versus has signed additional hockey sponsors with Rent-A-Center, Philips Electronics, Clorox and Midas joining Dodge and Enterprise on the roster.
Overall, the network made a strong showing in the upfront, with a double-digit increase in dollars, according to Neil Baker, executive VP of Comcast Network Sales.
Mr. Baker said the network will try to drum up more enthusiasm in the ad community for Versus over the next few weeks by visiting agencies bearing hats and T-shirts, having a party and entertaining clients at hockey games.
That effort comes on top of a $10 million campaign aimed at making viewers aware of the new name. The campaign uses the slogan “The Competition Is On.”
Still, it’s likely that Versus will be skating uphill for a while.
“I don’t think the general public has much of an idea of the rebranding and what the new programming will be. This will take time,” said Derek Baine of Kagan Research. “But Comcast is Comcast, they are huge and they do have a lot of spare ad inventory they can use to promote it, at least on their own systems.”