Universal Sports CEO David Sternberg’s enthusiasm is palpable as he talks about his recent trip to Beaver Creek, Colo., for the “Birds of Prey” World Cup skiing event.
U.S. skiier Ted Ligety had just dominated the competition in the giant slalom, emerging as a top contender for the World Cup title. Meanwhile, Lindsey Vonn had just swept her World Cup events in Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada — again — after her request to race in the men’s competitions was turned down.
In a ski season leading up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia — just 14 months away — you can see why an outdoor sports executive is getting giddy over the prospect of superstar U.S. athletes gaining buzz and grabbing viewers’ attention.
“This network is built on world-class athletes and the big names really drive what we do,” Sternberg said.
There’s no shortage of world-class athletes ready to either continue their dominance or break out as they set their sights on the Black Sea.
“U.S. ski racers are dominating the world’s stage,” Ski Channel founder and CEO Steve Bellamy said. “Although the U.S. is not where you would typically find the Franz Klammers and Ingemar Stenmarks of the ski world, with Lindsey Vonn, Bode Miller, Julia Mancuso and Ligety, the U.S. is the tour de force in ski racing. And with Lindsey and Bode, we basically have the Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods of skiing competing at the same time.”
Said Sternberg: “There was a huge lift for all winter sports following the  Vancouver Olympic. That momentum has carried on with these really incredible American performances and really approachable personalities … These are personalities that have helped sustain these sports past the 2010 games.”
This winter, Universal Sports will televise more than 140 hours of alpine ski coverage. This week it is carrying women’s World Cup events live from Sweden and the men’s giant slalom and slalom competitions from Italy. Ski coverage will continue into March, with the World Cup Final from Lenzerheide, Switzerland.
Universal is also flying headfirst into skeleton and bobsled coverage, and with track-and-field stars Lolo Jones and Tianna Madison making the attempt to cross over to bobsledding, interest in the sport is high. Jones’ bobsled career got off to an astonishing start when she and Jazmine Fenlator won silver at the World Cup opener in Lake Placid last month. She also survived her first crash, at a World Cup stop in Germany, a few weeks back.
In the midst of the winter sports season, Universal Sports is also moving its production and broadcast operations from Southern California to Denver, to work with the Comcast Media Center for production facilities and distribution services. While Sternberg and his team are still finalizing programming for 2013, Universal Sports plans to use the CMC as a hub for more studio shows, including its Sochi countdown show.
Universal Sports is filling a lull in the sports calendar, with “Winter Bowl” programming the weekend before the Super Bowl, a smorgasbord of winter events including bobsled, skiing and even skeet shooting. “This is the first year we’ve done this,” Sternberg said. “[It’s] really a confl uence of big-time, live competitions all happening on the same weekend.”
Said Bellamy: “Skiing is definitely an Olympics-driven sport. Our Web traffic during the Olympics just goes up five-fold and so we are now just trickling into that preparatory Olympic situation. Next year, it’s going to be really big for skiing.”
Ski Channel’s multiple award-winning The Sound of Winter, directed by Bellamy, is still playing on the festival circuit. The documentary, which features amazing footage of worldclass skiers, mountain climbers and other assorted daredevils, anchored the Bel Air (Calif.) Film Festival this fall and will appear on the network at a future date.
Alpine skiing and sledding aren’t the only outdoor sports that can give viewers a rush. Alli Sports, a division of NBC, is ankle-deep in Dew Tour coverage. Eleven hours of the extreme-sports competition will air this week and next weekend on both NBC and the NBC Sports Network.
Alli will air Red Bull’s Torc Series off roading championships Dec. 29. In March, Alli and Red Bull will once again team up with snowboarder Travis Rice for Super Selection, in which Rice invites 15 of the world’s best snowboarders to Baldface for some death-defying boarding. For last year’s Supernatural invitational, Rice and a group of riders and loggers built mountainbike type platforms and jumps 60-feet up in the trees near Baldface Lodge.
“The guys have continually pushed the envelope on what’s possible in snowboarding,” Alli’s B.J. Carretta said.
It’s been a year since Alli launched its “Signature Series” partnership with Red Bull; the energy drink brand continues to expand its presence by aligning itself with extreme sports.
In October, Red Bull sponsored Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner’s record-breaking free fall from space, where he plummeted to Earth at more than 800 miles per hour. More than 8 million viewers watched Baumgartner’s jump as it happened on YouTube; it also aired live in the U.S. on Discovery Channel and Velocity.
“[It] brings more exposure to the brand,” Carretta said. “If we can get a small percentage to check out Red Bull Signature Series, it’s a positive for us.” Rob Faris, senior vice president of programming and production at Outside TV, agreed that big names and big events help draw bigger audiences to the niche market of outdoor sports programming.
KING FELIX FACTOR
“The general public is starting to catch on. Felix is a great example,” Faris said. “These are our kind of characters that we gravitate to and I think people catch on and they say ‘I’ve heard of that person.’ “
Outside launched nationally on Comcast’s Xfinity TV this summer. The network has its own extreme sports star, free climber Alex Honnold, who scaled Yosemite’s “Triple Crown” — Mount Watkins, El Capitan and Half Dome — in less than 19 hours. He’s featured in a two-part episode of Outside’s ReelRock series, slated to begin in January with incredible climbing video compiled from the long-running “Reel Rock” film tour.
Outside is in the midst of introducing five new shows, including surf travelogue Surfing 28 States and the second installment of adventure snowboarding trilogy Jeremy Jones Further.
With the crossover stars, ridiculous feats and Olympic anticipation, it’s clear these are high times for winter sports television. While there’s certainly still room to grow an audience, those who love outdoors competition and boundarypushing programs should at least take a breather and enjoy the climb.