OLN Switches to ‘Versus’

Times Staff Writer

“Hey, did you see that game on Versus last night?”

That doesn’t have quite the same ring as “Hey, did you see that game on ESPN last night?”

The executives at Comcast-owned OLN hope someday it does.

Today the test begins as the name changes.

The cable channel that began in 1995 as the Outdoor Life Network -- mainly fishing and hunting -- and only last July changed to OLN as it picked up the National Hockey League and went indoors, officially has become Versus.

“It has a range that can suit everything from stick and ball sports to bull riding to field sports,” said network president Gavin Harvey.

Of course, there is precedent for a fledgling cable channel to become a household name.

In 1979, few could imagine how the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network would become the behemoth it is, translating its meager cable presence into a synonym for sports broadcasting worldwide. The brand is everywhere -- there is even an ESPN line of action sports apparel.


Harvey doesn’t speak of such ambitions but says branding is a key if Versus is going to grow in the minds of viewers, and the new name is simply aimed at breaking free of the outdoors.

The network also offers Arena Football League games, the America’s Cup yacht race, bull riding, boxing, Davis Cup, pool, lacrosse and Mountain West football.

“Versus captures the essence of our brand,” Harvey said. “We felt it was a slam dunk, and sports fans we talked to all agreed.”

The network is also suggesting that people can simply call it by the letters VS.

Harvey, a UCLA business school graduate who became network president in 2004, said creative director Michael Magnotta came up with the name last October. Focus groups were conducted and Versus was approved in April.

None of this might have happened if not for the NHL. When OLN got the deal last August, it was viewed as a watershed for the network because it gained a league it could hang its hat on.

“For us, it was a game changer,” Harvey said. “It put us on the map. It is the engine that drives us. We think the NHL has tremendous growth potential, and we want to grow this thing together.”


But it came about only because ESPN, hurt by the NHL lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season, decided to pass on a $60-million option to continue televising games.

So the NHL went looking for a new partner, one that would give it star billing despite the league’s history of low ratings. OLN was the answer, in a deal worth $135 million over two years and options that could stretch it to six.

But it wasn’t smooth skating.

* There was the issue of exclusivity. The NHL had given OLN sole rights to Monday nights. But schedules were already in place, with a number of games on Monday nights. Local carriers argued they had the rights to televise those other games. This season, Versus has Tuesdays as its exclusive night until the end of the NFL season, then it switches to Monday nights. No other NHL games will be played on those nights.

* There was the issue of ratings. Regular-season telecasts averaged only a 0.2 national cable rating. That means the NHL was being watched in an average of only .2% of OLN’s universe of 70 million homes.

* There was the issue of distribution. This was particularly noticeable in Southern California during the NHL playoffs. Since OLN reaches 49% of the cable households in this market, some fans who wanted to watch the Anaheim Ducks without paying more couldn’t.

Harvey said distribution remains a sticking point.

“I would like to see us in 80 million homes or more, but we are much stronger than we were in 2004,” he said. Before hockey, OLN reached about 62 million households.


“But we still have room for a lot more growth,” Harvey said. “We needed the name change. We want to be a place that shows a lot of different sports.”

Parent company Comcast, the biggest U.S. cable provider with 24 million subscribers, has tried to help that along. It showed interest in Major League Baseball last fall but ESPN, sensing the competition, moved fast and worked out a $2.4-billion deal to continue televising regular-season games through 2013.

In July, a deal worth $3 billion over seven years was announced, giving TBS the first round of the playoffs, with Fox retaining one of the two league championship series and the World Series. The other league championship series is still up for grabs. The rights are believed to be worth $70 million a year.

According to New York sports television consultant Neal Pilson, Comcast has probably submitted a bid. “I wouldn’t say Comcast would be the favorite, but it certainly has the resources,” Pilson said.

Comcast earlier went after the NFL. It reportedly was prepared to pay $400 million a year for a late-season, eight-game package. But the league did an end run and gave the package to its own NFL Network.

So it was no surprise when Brian L. Roberts, the Comcast chief executive, last week called for a national discussion among team owners, sports networks and cable distributors on the rising costs of sports programming.


Yet Pilson isn’t sure Versus needs the NFL. Of the network, he said: “It can still become a very important part of the sports scene and fill a very important niche without one of the so-called major sports.”