JUST AS THE postlockout NHL was returning to the ice in 2005, the Outdoor Life Network was rebranding itself as a more traditional sports outlet. Ironically banking its reputation on an indoor sport, OLN bought the NHL rights for $135 million over two years. Since then, to complement its hockey coverage, the Comcast-owned network (renamed Versus in September '06) has experimented with an odd assortment of sports. The lineup includes programming orphaned by other networks: bullriding, cycling (which OLN already aired before its NHL deal), sailing, IndyCar racing, World Extreme Cagefighting and some college football—all in an effort, says network president Jamie Davis, to lure young male viewers. The programming is not unlike ESPN's in its early years, which highlighted tractor pulls and Australian rules football.
Of course ESPN had far less competition in the mid-1980s than Versus has now, but the strategy seems to be working. The average age of Versus's audience, over 50 in the OLN days when hunting and fishing were the star attractions, has dipped to 43, and its overall prime-time audience increased 24% from 2007 to '08, to an average of 278,000 according to Nielsen (about 10% of ESPN's audience). This year's Tour of California, boosted by Lance Armstrong's return, drew an average viewership of 185,000, up 300% from last year; the NHL is up 27% (including 63% among men aged 18 to 34), to an average of 326,000 viewers. College football audiences ranged from 57,000 for a Brown-Penn game to 1.6 million for Oregon--Oregon State.
Percentage growth is easy when the gross number is low, and ad dollars follow gross ratings. Still, Versus generated its best ad revenue in 2008, and Davis says he plans to pursue sports aggressively, "superserving" his audience. The channel will air nightly NHL doubleheaders at the start of the playoffs, 14 daily hours of the Tour de France and an unprecedented seven weekly hours of IndyCar during race season. The goal: to turn other networks' scraps into a viewers' feast.