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Life after Lance

What happens to OLN once Armstrong finally retires from cycling?

Posted: Friday July 30, 2004 1:10PM; Updated: Friday July 30, 2004 2:24PM
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Here are three shows I will never watch on the Outdoor Life Network: Top 10 Places To Swim With Sharks, Dirt Rider Adventures and RV Today. Call me a city slicker, but the only sharks I ever swim with are the Armani-clad ones who work on Wall Street. And that's not by choice, by the way.

Like many television viewers, however, I tuned into OLN during July to watch Lance Armstrong climb the mountains of Alpe d'Huez and waffle some Belgian cyclists. Along with winning six consecutive Tour de France titles, Armstrong has pedaled OLN into the mainstream. The network has gone from a start-up that reached one million homes in 1995 to a network with an audience of more than 60 million households today. Its boldest stroke came in '99 when it purchased the U.S broadcast rights to the Tour for $3 million, a steal of a deal that ranks with Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio and the Louisiana Purchase.

"Lance has given the OLN network an enormous strategic boost -- and an identity," says Neal Pilson, the former president of CBS Sports and now a television consultant. "It's now on the map in terms of being a sports channel. It's a classic case of how an emerging cable channel can create an identify around a personality and a specific event, and make itself known to the American public."

And the American public liked what it saw, even if they didn't see Lance cross the finish line on the last day. OLN pulled in a massive 2.2 million viewers (gross total) for its final day of Tour coverage (up from 1.2 million in '03), and the network's 21 live morning telecasts of the Tour were up in average total viewers by 30 percent (458,681 this year versus 351,696 last year). OLN also recorded its highest-rated day (July 25) and its highest-rated week (July 19-25) in network history.

The network aired a record 344 hours of Tour coverage, prompting some to opine that OLN stood for "Only Lance Network." It will continue its Lance-centric programming this weekend with The Lance Armstrong Interview (Sunday, 7 p.m.) and the final episode of the Lance Chronicles on Tuesday, Aug. 3, at 8 p.m. (Can Behind the Rider: Sheryl Crow be far away?)

"We love the fact Lance has brought so many eyeballs and attention to the sport of cycling," Gavin Harvey, the president of OLN, told the AP this week. "But it's not just Lance."

Or is it? That's the big question for OLN as it prepares for the day Lance is no longer packing his suitcase of courage. Will viewers care about the Tour in a post-Lance world? Will they care about OLN? While its cycling coverage offers the inimitable tandem of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, a duo who could make a Senate Agriculture Committee Hearing sound exciting, broadcasters don't add eyeballs. The network recently added pro bullriding and rodeo events to its lineup, and it offers a plethora of action-sports coverage, featuring baby-faced broadcasters, who use words like "intense" and "right on."

But on a typical day this year, OLN is watched by an average of 56,580 viewers. That's roughly the population of Lancaster, Pa. Pilson suggests the network continues to use Armstrong as a spokesperson for as long as possible. He also recommends targeting the top American cyclists -- not named Lance -- and building stories and reality-show programming around them so viewers will be familiar with them when Armstrong hangs up his Trek. "The interest will allow them to maintain their viewer base to the extent Lance participates in the channel," Pilson says. "They can't be the Lance Armstrong Channel once he leaves competitive cycling." 

As for the man himself, Armstrong told SI last week he was leaning toward competing in the Tour de France again, but he would not guarantee that his next climb through Alpe d'Huez would come next year. Instead, he's toying with the idea of riding the three-week Giro d'Italia next May -- which along with the Tour de France and World Cycling Championships makes up the Triple Crown of Cycling. At least OLN won't need to find another 'giro' if Armstrong decides to spend some time in Genoa next year: The network owns the North American rights to the Italian race as well.

60 Seconds with ... Gary McCord

The CBS golf analyst played on the PGA Tour for 15 years and has worked with the network since '86.

SI.com: If you did not have the option of being a sports broadcaster, what would you likely have become?

McCord: I probably would have been in the ad business in some way, shape or form, because I've got a lot of bull****. I figure that would go along way in the ad business.

SI.com: What's the one event you wish you could cover that currently airs on another network?

McCord: I'd like to do the British Open because of the serendipity of the whole tournament.

SI.com: If you were starting a network, who is the one broadcaster you would go all out to hire?

McCord: David Feherty of CBS. He's new and innovative and never uses the same thing twice. He works hard at what he does -- the guys who make me laugh are the guys I like to be around. He has the fastest wit and, obviously, he understands the game from winning nine tournaments.

SI.com: What do you consider your greatest on-air achievement?

McCord: Hopefully, I haven't had that yet. Because the stuff I've done so far is pure crap. (laughs)

SI.com: Advice for a broadcaster looking to break into the business?

McCord: Be yourself. You can't fake anything else.

SI.com: You're covering the Buick Open in Grand Blanc, Mich., this weekend. Who should we be watching?

McCord: Pay attention to Tiger to see if he emerges back in the victory circle, and if he's getting in tune for Whistling Straits [the Kohler, Wisc., site of the Aug. 9-15 PGA Championship]. Everybody will be looking at him and at the guys for the Ryder Cup to see how they are positioning themselves. It's basically a Tiger watch. Stop in to see if he comes out of his hibernation and starts playing to the high criteria he has set for himself.

SI.com: What word or words do you most overuse in your broadcast?

McCord: Alluding to the fact someone is dead: I've got a tag on his toe. He's in the morgue. He's in a body bag. Flat-lined. We use the term "he's dead" all the time. He's got no chance, and he can't possibly get it up and down from there. He's dead. I think we beat that into submission.

Don't Miss

Here are two programs you'll be talking about around the cooler come next week:

July 31, 1 p.m., ESPN, Team USA vs. Puerto Rico

Sure, it's no Dream Team, but it's nearly a teen team, thanks to the presence of 19-year-old LeBron James and 20-year-old Carmelo Anthony. With Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady and others opting out of the assignment, the U.S. team is the youngest (average age: 23.6 years) since NBA players began participating in '92. Co-captains Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson (we'll assume Duncan gets the guys together for practice) are on hand to provide veteran leadership. The Americans open Olympic play on Aug. 15, against Puerto Rico, so this exhibition in Jacksonville has a tad more cachet than your average U.S. rout.

August 2, 8 p.m., ABC, Battle of the Bridges

We'd make Jeff a five-point favorite over Beau. Oh, wait, it's that other Battle of the Bridges, a one-round, two player best-ball duel between the teams of Tiger Woods and Hank Kuehne, and Phil Mickelson and John Daly. The winner splits $1 million and can claim this made-for-TV championship (which takes place at The Bridges at Rancho Santa Fe, near San Diego) for another year. Comedian George Lopez will work as a roving reporter to ensure the seriousness of the event.

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