Let Name Game Begin

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OLN doesn’t officially become Versus until next Monday, but the Comcast Corp.-owned sports service will begin pushing its new moniker in earnest this week with a multimedia campaign that over the next year will exceed $10 million in value.

The rebranding effort will also overlay tune-in messages, highlighting specific sports, events and shows, in an effort to build sampling and viewership.

The name change, which was first introduced to on-air viewers during the network’s coverage of the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup championships in June, culminates a two-year repositioning for the service, once primarily known for hunting and fishing fare, which still constitutes 40% of its programming.

However, the network has broadened its sports and competition berth via the addition of the NHL, boxing, America’s Cup yacht racing, the Arena Football League and Davis Cup tennis and even off-network episodes of reality series Survivor. The properties complement a portfolio that also turns on Tour de France cycling and the Professional Bull Riders’ circuit. In July 2005, the Outdoor Life Network morphed to OLN.

CEO Gavin Harvey said that Versus connects what the network is about now: man vs. man, man vs. beast and team vs. team. “It’s a very smart description of what we are, brand essence in a name,” he said.

Harvey said Versus, accompanied by video of OLN’s sports, repeatedly tested well with various focus groups.

“Versus kept bubbling its way back to the top,” he said. “It’s a provocative name. We wanted something with personality, not generic wallpaper. If you want something to break through, you have to take a leap of faith. It’s what Google and Yahoo have done.”

Working with agencies Taxi and Naked, the steeling of the brand — which will also see OLN.tv become versus.com on Sept. 25 — won’t take place overnight. The multi-pronged push will come out of the gate strongly this week, but the effort is configured as a year-long ride.

“This is not a sprint, but a marathon,” said Bill Bergofin, senior vice president of marketing and promotion. “We want to start strong and maintain momentum throughout our key events.”

Bergofin said the “relative value” of the campaign will be in the “eight figures.”

He said that this week the campaign’s emphasis is on getting the word out about the name change, and looking to “build buzz and interest for our primetime lineup.”

Coming out of the gate, Versus will present a wide swath of programming, from boxing to original series Soul of a Champion, plus Mountain West Conference football and a primetime field-and-stream sports block Friday Sept. 29.

During the campaign’s second week, there will be more of an NHL focus, ahead of Versus’s second season covering the ice sport, which faces off Oct. 4 with a doubleheader.

Bergofin said the plan includes USA Today, as well as to local newspapers in NHL markets. Also on the print side: ESPN the Magazine, Sports Illustrated, The Sporting News, FHM, Men’s Health and Maxim.

Spot broadcast in late night and spot cable are part of the mix. National cable will also be used. Asked if ESPN was part of the schedule, Bergofin said, “we’re still looking to see if ESPN will take our copy.”

The name change will also be trumpeted on various sports sites, including ESPN.com, SportingNews.com, foxsports.com, sportsillustrated.com and cbssportsline.com.

Versus is also tapping cross-channel avails on systems owned by Cox Communications Inc. and parent Comcast, whose programming stable encompasses E! Entertainment Television, The Golf Channel and gaming lifestyle channel G4, plus a number of regional sports networks.

Versus, which will roll out transit ads, also plans a presence in sports bars with coasters, napkins and glasses.

While the myriad media each break down somewhat differently, Bergofin said Versus is aiming primarily at core sports fans, aged 25 to 54. He said that target would ring wider over the course of the campaign as Versus looks to a bigger audience. For example, he said the network would aim at fans of women’s tennis through different treatments.

The campaign will also involve some guerrilla elements that will place Versus in some unusual places, according to Bergofin.