Versus Rebranded NBC Sports Network

Parent Comcast tinkers with image as it preps for run at ESPN

Months after Dick Ebersol revealed plans to discard the Versus brand, NBC Sports Group is preparing a Viking funeral for it.

Always something of an odd fit for the aspiring sports network—the Middle English borrowing was meant to evoke the spirit of competition without explicitly incorporating the word “sports”—Versus will become the NBC Sports Network on Jan. 2, 2012.

First introduced in September 2006 by then-president Gavin Harvey, Versus succeeded the short-lived OLN, shorthand for Outdoor Life Network. At the time, field sports (hunting, fishing, etc.) accounted for roughly 40 percent of the channel’s daytime programming lineup, while occasional oddities like Wanted: Ted or Alive popped up in prime time. (The latter chronicled right-wing rocker/bow hunter Ted Nugent’s attempts to purge the planet of its native deer population.) 

With the addition of live NHL coverage in 2005, Versus took a sharp turn toward offering more traditional athletic competition. Hockey has proved to be reliable ratings bait for Versus, which notched an historic high 2.76 million viewers with Game 3 of this year's Stanley Cup Finals. In the second quarter, the network averaged 567,000 viewers in prime time, up 11 percent from the year-ago period, and more than double (113 percent) its Q2 2007 audience.

Along with semantically aligning the Comcast network under the NBC Sports Group umbrella, the name change is yet another indication that NBC Universal CEO Steve Burke is serious about taking a run at ESPN.

The new name and logo will go live in conjunction with NBC’s presentation of the NHL Winter Classic between the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers.

“This is more than just a name change for Versus,” said Mark Lazarus, who replaced Ebersol as chairman of NBC Sports Group in May. “It will allow us to work across both platforms—the broadcast platform and the national cable platform—in a way that is seamless. [It] will look like one unified sports business.”

In other words, viewers can expect the production values of all NBC Sports Network programming to be on a par with the major sporting events that air on the flagship network. A more uniform presentation across all NBC Sports properties could go a long way toward raising the profile of the cable channel, which is available in approximately 74 million households.

ESPN and its primary spin-off network, ESPN2, pass more than 100 million homes.

While Burke has long entertained visions of taking ESPN down a peg, the sports giant has demonstrated that it will go to great lengths to preserve its dominance. In May, ESPN joined forces with Fox Sports in order to block NBC/Comcast’s bid for the Pac-12's media rights. The strange bedfellows plunked down $3 billion for a 12-year package, in a joint deal that effectively thwarted NBC’s attempt to establish a college football stronghold.

(NBC’s NCAA football footprint is limited to its exclusive coverage of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Grambling-Southern “Bayou Classic.”)

Burke also faces fierce opposition in Turner Sports, which owns the rights to three of the four major MLB Playoff series as well as a big chunk of the NBA slate and, with CBS, the annual NCAA March Madness tourney. In September, Turner and Versus are expected to go to war for the new Thursday night NFL slate, an eight-game windfall that could cost the winning network $600 million or more.

Given its closer association with the NBC powerhouse and Comcast’s deep pockets, Versus/NBC Sports Net promises to be a burr in ESPN and Turner’s respective saddles. The network and its broadcast sibling already have bested Bristol in head-to-head competition, outbidding ESPN in April for a new 10-year, $2 billion NHL package. In June, Comcast wrote another huge check, investing $4.38 billion on a comprehensive rights deal for the 2014-20 Olympics.

Versus in 2010 took in $94.4 million in net ad revenue, according to SNL Kagan, shy of the $122.6 million whipped up by sibling net Golf Channel. Meanwhile, ESPN accumulated more cash than any other cable network, netting $1.48 billion in ad sales and a staggering $5.27 billion in affiliate revenue.

Kagan data shows the three major Turner nets (TNT, TBS and truTV) took in a combined $1.85 billion in ad sales a year ago.