Versus Crowe-ing About Rugby

Sep 23, 2007  •  Post A Comment

Sports cable channel Versus is entering its second year under its new moniker with help from none other than Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe.
Mr. Crowe’s representatives have struck a deal with Versus to air “South Side Story,” a series about an Australian rugby team, on the cable outlet beginning Oct. 10.
The series, which originally aired on Australia’s ABC network, is produced by the actor. It follows Mr. Crowe and Peter Holmes à Court, a business associate, who together bought and ran a rugby team in Sydney called the South Sydney Rabbitohs. The series documents everything from the controversy surrounding their acquisition of the historic team to the unit’s rise to prominence as a contender.
Six episodes of the half-hour series are set to run on Versus, which begins airing the 2007 Rugby World Cup this week as part of the channel’s expansion into sports.
“This is a gritty sport that fits perfectly into our brand,” said Marc Fein, senior VP of programming and production at Versus. “With Russell’s show, we knew that this was simply an unbelievable story about how the once giants of the sport had fallen. It tells the story of Russell buying the team, which had to go to a public referendum, and how these guys turned the franchise around, with cameras going behind the scenes of every move.”
Versus, which shifted gears and relaunched Sept. 25 of last year from the Outdoor Life Network, also recently added games from college football’s Big Twelve Conference and Pac 10 Conference plus the Hula Bowl to go along with the Mountain West Conference on its lineup. In addition, the company recently scored a new deal with World Extreme Cagefighting and is preparing for its third season of National Hockey League coverage.
“We are approaching the culmination of a repositioning process that began in 2004, with the goal of growing this network into full distribution and appealing to as many fans of sports and competition as we can,” said Versus President Gavin Harvey. “The cable distribution environment is so ferocious, and we have to justify our existence each and every day through quality programming that appeals to new and core audiences alike.”
Since 2004, the network has grown from a distribution of just above 60 million to being available in 74 million homes. With the addition of the NHL, and with ad rates for the channel rising, Versus revenues have bolstered parent company Comcast’s programming revenues by 22 percent in the second quarter to $334 million compared to the same period in 2006, according to company reports.
“We are now seeing excellent trends in the economic metrics of the company,” said Kim Armor, chief financial officer and senior VP of finance and business development at Versus. “We’ve seen tremendous growth on all of our revenue models.”
“Our ratings are up, our impressions are up, and leagues like what we’re doing in our position as a sports network,” Mr. Harvey said. “In 10 years we aim to accomplish the goal of being fully distributed, which means we have to remain aggressive and continue to be in the market for opportunities to take the network to that next level.”
The first part of the puzzle fell into place in 2004, when OLN capitalized on the popularity of Lance Armstrong with the Tour de France; its telecast of the cycling race scored then-record ratings for the network.
In 2005, the channel struck a three-year, $200 million deal to acquire cable rights to NHL games. This year, the company installed Bill Patrick as the in-studio “Hockey Central” host, and executives are optimistic that the league will remain on Versus beyond the current deal. The company is going all out in promoting the new season of the league.
“One of the big challenges in marketing hockey is that the sport has lost a little bit of its Q Score, but we are succeeding in flipping that on its head,” said Bill Bergofin, senior VP of marketing for Versus. “These are real athletes, not pampered prima donnas, and resonate with our brand. Authentic competition is what people want who watch our channel, and in the three quarters since we relaunched we’ve been able to increase our own awareness by 35 points by promoting that spirit of competition.”
When company executives opted for the name Versus, it was in the spirit of man vs. man and team vs. team as well as man vs. nature. The latter made up the base of the channel’s original audience core with series about hunting and fishing. Mr. Harvey noted that every effort was being made to continue incorporating that audience into the channel’s programming efforts, including expanding its content on whitetail deer hunting.
“Hunting, fishing and shooting made up the legacy of our existence as OLN, and we continue to have a lot invested in those field sports,” he said. “There is a misconception that we are moving away from it, but a third of our network hours are devoted to hunting and fishing; in fact, we’re the only network that programs hunting and fishing in prime time.”
As the channel moves forward and strengthens its brand with competition ranging from college basketball to track and field championships to America’s Cup yacht racing, executives are relishing Versus’ role as the renegade independent on the sports landscape.
“We are in the fortunate position of being strong enough to align ourselves with blue-chip brands such as Zuffa, which owns both the UFC and Extreme Cagefighting, and the NHL, but small enough to continue to be opportunistic,” said Mr. Harvey. “That’s a position we can thrive in.”


  1. An interesting piece of trivia, perhaps not widely known. The USA is the current World champion of Olympic Rugby, a title they have held for over 80 years.

  2. An even more interesting piece of trivia: The sport featured in this documentary series isn’t even the same sport as the one that featured at those Olympics.
    The game that most Americans know as rugby is a sport called rugby union, which has very little in common with the sport of rugby league, as featured in Crowe’s documentary.
    The two sports are similar only in the way that cricket and baseball are.

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