On January 2nd, Versus will become the NBC Sports Network and the way we watch sports on television is going to change dramatically.
For years, ESPN has ruled the sports world as the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports. Their role as the only all-sports network of significance has created a media empire that has risen out of tiny Bristol, Connecticut.
But with their own sports network, NBC is now gunning for ESPN’s title. And with the solid business model, and a solid support system already built-in, you can forgive ESPN if they are looking over their shoulder for the first time.
By acquiring and re-branding Versus, as opposed to starting their own network, NBC Sports will already be a force from day one. When the network debuts in January, it will already be in 70 million homes. They still have a ways to go to catch ESPN (100 million homes), but the task is now considerably easier.
Chairman Mark Lazarus said 'We are not going to replicate what others are doing,' and emphasised that NBC Sports would not be doing a 'SportsCenter' rip-off.
And that is a good thing.
The biggest reason the USFL and XFL failed and the UFL is going to fail, is that they were just inferior versions of the NFL. Nobody wants that. If they really wanted to succeed, they should have created a new product, much like the Arena Football League did. Maybe some sort of football-rugby hybrid sport and tried to appeal to the UFC crowd.
Now, that's not to say NBC Sports is going after the UFC crowd. Quite the opposite. NBC Sports is more likely to go in the other direction and provide a more intellectual property.
Sports fans have grown tired of ESPN's biased coverage towards the super-teams (e.g. New York Yankees) and the stars that simply drive ratings (e.g. Brett Favre). And hey, that's cool. It works. After all, the E stands for 'Entertainment,' and the N does not stand for 'News.'
But it also means that a lot of people believe that ESPN is incapable of providing fair and balanced coverage of sports. Just check out this 'SportsCenter' chart and you will see that ESPN takes care of their partners first, and the news second.
In 2010, ESPN generated $1.7 billion in ad revenue. At the same time, Versus generated just $110.7 million. With the new NBC Sports name, that number will rise significantly. But will NBC Sports rise cause a drop in ESPN revenues or will they just be generating new revenue?
ESPN has so many partnerships these days that it is easy for some of the smaller fish to get lost in the big pond. NBC Sports will build up its brand by attracting the smaller sports that want more attention.
One example would be the Big East conference, which has suffered with all of the conference realignment happening around the country. But while college football is driving realignment, the Big East is still a powerful basketball conference. And when they are looking for a new television deal, NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus says he is 'very interested' in talking with the Big East.
And considering there is some evidence that ESPN influenced the ACC's decision to poach Syracuse and Pittsburgh, the Big East may be looking to exact a bit of revenge.
When ESPN was first starting, Big East basketball was an important piece. The rights to college basketball games are a lot cheaper than college football. But while the profit margins are a lot less, being associated with a conference like the Big East will give NBC Sports a steady stream of live sporting events. And that is ultimately what the average sports fan wants.
On January 2nd, NBC Sports will debut with the NHL's always popular 'Winter Classic,' which this year will be held outdoors at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park. Sure it's just hockey, but the NHL is still one of the four major North American sports. And with the NBA currently mired in a lockout with little hope, there will be a lot of sports fans looking for something to watch this winter.
The Olympics are the second most popular sport in this country. And with NBC Sports, the Peacock now has a better avenue for covering the event next summer. For the first time, NBC will broadcast every event live in some form or another. If it is not on NBC, it will be on NBC Sports or streamed live via NBCSports.com.
And the timing couldn't be better. NBC will have several months to get their feet wet and promote the Olympics. And when the London Olympics do occur, millions of sports fans will be introduced to the NBC Sports network for the first time.
Say what you will about the Notre Dame football program, but they are still popular and are a ratings force in the college football world. And starting next year, one or two of their games will be moved to NBC Sports.
NBC owns the golf channel, so you can expect a lot of cross-promotion between that network and NBC Sports. Now if they can just get somebody to straighten out Tiger Woods' swing, they'll be set.
NBC will keep the Sunday Night Football package on their main network. But they have a good chance of adding a Thursday night package starting in 2012 when the league goes to a full season of Thursday night games.
And as a partner of the NFL, NBC Sports will have access to the NFL in ways other small sports networks would never experience. And that access will give their news shows and talk shows legitimacy.
Major League Baseball's national television contracts will be up for grabs in 2013. Don't be surprised if NBC Sports tries to grab at least a small piece of that package to get their foot in the door.
Bob Costas, one of the most well-respected voices in sports, will host a monthly interview show on NBC Sports and occasional town hall meetings similar to his show on HBO. The first town hall meeting will be during the week before the Super Bowl which should draw a large audience.
But more importantly, Costas was widely acclaimed for being the first to score an interview with Jerry Sandusky and for the way he handled the interview. That segment will still be fresh in people's minds.
Yahoo! Sports has been the number one sports website for 42 of the past 43 months with ESPN.com typically in second place. Currently, NBCSports.com is eighth among sports web properties with just 14.8 million unique visitors in October, compared to 49.2 million for ESPN.com. But with the emergence of a powerful sports television network, NBCSports.com brand will certainly jump in popularity, and become yet another popular ESPN.com alternative.
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