Universal Sports Points To Niche-Based Future

By Carolyn Braff

NBC’s foray into 24-hour Olympic Sports coverage – by means of its partnership with World Championship Sports Network to create Universal Sports – has industry implications that reach far beyond this summer’s Olympic Games. “I think this is part of an overall trend that there’s increasing focus on niche sports networks,” explains Lee Berke, president and CEO of LHB Sports, Entertainment & Media and a sports television network consultant.

Olympic sport as a franchise has yet to be fully distributed as a stand-alone channel – by any network – but with NBC becoming a significant shareholder in Universal Sports, WCSN’s television distribution challenges should be a thing of the past.

“WCSN has had distribution issues ever since it launched,” Berke explains. “Because NBC is carrying the Olympics, they will push the distribution of the channel in a much more meaningful way than WCSN has been able to do on its own. My guess is NBC will be pushing strenuously to gain additional distribution for this channel.”

Currently, WCSN/Universal Sports reaches about 2 million viewers, and while NBC Universal may not have time to meaningfully increase that number before the Beijing Games begin in August, getting the channel into more homes – and not solely Olympic sports fans’ homes – will be critical.

“As a strategic alternative, they’re calling it Universal Sports,” Berke explains. “While at this point they are saying it’s strictly an Olympic Sports channel, it’s possible that in the future they might utilize it as a more general sports channel and take on the ESPN’s and Fox’s of the world.”

At this point, however, NBC has made a clear commitment to use Universal Sports as a platform to promote Olympic sports, a title that encompasses amateur disciplines with world championships that are not necessarily part of the Olympic program.

“I don’t think that’s our strategy or plan for the channel at this point,” Claude Ruibal, chairman and CEO of Universal Sports, says of extending the channel’s offerings. “I think we’re really focused on Olympic-type sports. Sports like rugby, cricket, tennis and soccer, even though they are ‘Olympic’ sports, we’re not actively pursuing them because they’re already sold to someone else at a pretty high rights fee. There is a number of other sports that we’re interested in doing, sports with a global governing body that have a world championship that are exciting to watch. I think we’ll try to focus some of that activity.”

Ruibal mentions team handball, water skiing and karate, just to name a few of those disciplines, and adds that bringing underrepresented sports to the American viewer, in the style of ABC’s classic show, Wide World of Sports, will be an important part of Universal Sports’ future.

Standing relationships with sports programming entities ranging from the NFL and Notre Dame Football to the Kentucky Derby could allow NBC to utilize the Universal Sports channel to air previous specials, supplemental programming, or even historical archives of programs for which it already holds rights.

“There’s a range of options out there and when you’re calling it Universal Sports, you give yourself increased flexibility as to what those sports will be,” Berke says.

As for filling any gaps in the 24-hour content schedule, Ruibal says his network is more than covered.

“We were looking at having close to 2,300 event programming hours even before our involvement with NBC,” Ruibal says.

Those 2,300 hours will now be supplemented with encore presentations of the competition from Beijing, for which NBC has one-year replay rights, but the content will go well beyond standard replay.

“We want to add some additional production value to those, perhaps interviews with the athletes who’ve had some time to reflect on their performances,” Ruibal explains. “We want to segue beyond just the Games to talk about what these athletes are up to next and where you can see them next, to allow the consumer a little more in-depth feeling about what happened at the Games.”

As HD Goes Universal, Universal Goes HD

Universal Sports has no current plans to upgrade WCSN’s Andrita Studio, located in Los Angeles, which serves as an adequate control suite and distribution point for the growing network. The channel is currently offered only in standard definition, although about 16 percent of its 2,300 event programming hours are shot in native 1080i HD.

“We can probably upconvert the PAL programming that we have so that about 60 percent of our overall programming can be HD quality,” Ruibal says. “By the end of 2010-2011, we’re looking to have 60-70 percent pure 1080i programming, because a lot of the production, particularly on the big world championships, is moving over to that.”

The timing of the NBC-WCSN partnership poses a different challenge to the United States Olympic Committee. The USOC also has plans to launch a television network, on a to-be-announced timetable, but with NBC off the market as a distribution partner, the USOC may be running low on options.

“It’s difficult to maximize network distribution on your own, particularly if the events you have don’t give you the leverage to drive a channel,” Berke says, noting that distribution constraints for an entity like the NFL Network are offset by the leverage that a slate of NFL games provides.

“The question is what can they create based on USOC-leveraged events that makes the most sense?” Berke says. “Are they going to take the risk of taking their most popular events, like track and field championships or figure skating, off of broadcast and put that on their own channel? Those are substantial, money-making events. You’re building for the long term, but there’s a short term loss if you make those shifts. But it is something that could be easily rectified if and when they come up with a distribution programming partner that gives them additional clout.”

Password must contain the following:

A lowercase letter

A capital (uppercase) letter

A number

Minimum 8 characters