Versus begins its coverage of the Tour De France July 4 with an old friend competing again in the world's most famous bicycle race.
But Lance Armstrong's return to the race for the first time in 2005, when he won a seventh consecutive Tour De France title, isn't the only attraction. Versus, for the first time, will produce each of the 23 stages in high-definition for the first time.
All told, Comcast's national sports service's coverage will span some 250 live and encore hours, starting at 8:30 a.m. (ET) with a one-hour retrospective of Armstrong's career and his comeback season. Then, the pedaling begins in earnest at 9:30 a.m.
The 2009 Tour is Versus first under a new five-year deal with the Amaury Sport Organization, the organizer of the race. Sources value the pact at some $27.5 million, a total that encompasses the exclusive U.S. TV rights to the event, English-rights in Canada, and production costs and commitments.
‘This is an epic, grueling event that has become signature programming for Versus every July," said Versus
president Jamie Davis. "We renewed the deal last year, right before the race, with or without Lance. His return makes for a fantastic American story and he'll bring in the casual viewers. The hard-core cycling fans are already with us."
Davis said Versus' strategy of super-serving fans, whether the National Hockey League, IRL, World Extreme Cagefighting circuit, is bringing new viewers to the network. That helped boost the Tour's Nielsen's fortunes to their most-watched levels, three years removed from Armstrong's then-last ride.
Versus cumed 32 million watchers for the 2008 Tour, the network's most ever with the event. Plenty of young men were in that camp, as the service rang up an 83% rise among males 18 to 34.
"We have a lot of momentum," said Davis.
Armstrong aside, this year's features the three subsequent Tour winners:: Oscar Pereiro (2006), Alberto Contador (2007) and Carlos Sastre (2008). They will all be competing to wear the yellow jersey in Paris, with Armstrong and Contador both riding for Team Astana.
As to Armstrong's chances, Phil Liggett, who will once again call the race action with Paul Sherwen, offered this assessment during a June 29 conference call: "I don't think it's going to make any difference, Lance laying off [for three and half years], because at 37 he proved to us in the Giro d'Italia that he was, by the time that race finished, probably the best rider in the race. His form had come great. He took a while to come back after his broken collar bone in Spain and when he started the Giro he was behind. By the last week, he was very strong. He was going better than Levi [Leipheimer] by the last week of the race.
"So I think riders are scared of Lance right now and not least possibly his own teammate, Alberto Contador," Liggitt continued. "Lance will be, I guarantee it, a reckoner in this race. He will not take it lying down; he's too good an athlete."
Versus will place a camera on the U.S. cycling team Garmin-Slipstream's bus to give viewers an insider's look at the team's daily meeting as they prepare for the day's stage. Other enhancements include profiles and features on teams and riders; advanced on-screen statistics/biometrics to illustrate the intensity at which the riders are competing; and a telestrator to analyze and breakdown sprint finishes.
In primetime, Versus plans to focus less on highlights from the day and more on features of the riders and the towns through which they pass.
Online, Versus.com is the official U.S. Web site for the Tour and will be home to exclusive video, highlights and a mapping device charting the elevations for the different stages and positioning of the riders. There will also be live chat and twitter elements.
Although it holds the rights to stream the Tour live, Versus, according to Davis, doesn't plan to go there in the years to come.
"There are considerations for our affiliates," he said, before stating that online should be complementary to what viewers see on TV. "Ideally, they're watching the race with their laptops and getting deeper information. We want it to be a case of where one-plus-one equals three."
On the ad side, Davis said Versus is doing very well.
"We lost Saab, but Cadillac came in and they are sponsoring a ‘Ride of Your Life' sweepstakes. Honda is a second auto and Nike is returning for the first time since 2005," he said, noting there were also endemic advertisers with schedules in the famed race.