Universal Sports Goes For the Gold


Universal Sports is taking the Olympic motto of citius, altius and fortius to heart. 

In just a year, the network has seen gold-medal growth from 2 million subscribers to 28.2 million. Now, it's looking to push its distribution even higher in the months ahead as it continues to stengthen its programming lineup.

Originally World Championship Sports Network, which had been owned by Leo Hindery's InterMedia Partners, the Olympic-sports service was rebranded as Universal Sports last June, when NBC Universal became a joint-venture partner. Through that point, WCSN had amassed an array of Olympic-style sports rights, which were also expressed on broadband.

That robust lineup attracted NBCU. “WCSN had essentially all the world championship events in virtually all the Olympic sports,” said Gary Zenkel, president of NBC Olympics and executive vice president of strategic partnerships for NBC Sports.

With NBCU's support, Universal Sports is now available in 48.5 million homes, with a presence in nine of the top 10 DMAs (excluding Boston) and 12 of the top 20 markets. The network expects it will soon reach nearly 56 million homes.

The gains have not been forged by NBCU affiliate efforts to package expansive Olympics fare along with renewals for other properties. Rather, NBCU has leveraged retransmission-consent to negotiate multicast carriage for the network.

On that scorecard, Universal Sports counts 23 million cable-connected subscribers and another 5.2 million who receive it over-the-air via digital converter boxes.

Those totals are expected to hit 26 million and 7 million, respectively, on July 1, when the service will launch on multicast stations in Orlando, Tampa, Detroit, Charleston, S.C., Fresno, Calif., and Puerto Rico, through deals that will put it in front of 55.7 million homes.

With rights to such top Olympics sports as track and field (it recently renewed a deal with governing body the International Association of Athletics Federations through 2015), gymnastics, swimming, volleyball, skiing and skating and attendant programming profiling the competitors, Universal Sports chairman and CEO Claude Ruibal said affiliates see value in Universal Sports and Universalsports.com as destinations for these and other Olympic-style events.

“There is year-round interest for these sports and the athletes,” said Ruibal, who was WCSN chairman and CEO, noting the service goes deeper with information, video and other content on its Web site (www.universalsports.com), which proffers a combination of free and paid content.

The service scored recently with its coverage of Michael Phelps's return to the pool for the first time since his eight gold medal performance from the Beijing Games at the Ultraswim competition in Charlotte in May. That month it also snapped up the rights to Giro de Italia, Italy's answer to the Tour de France, grabbing exclusive interviews with Lance Armstrong on the comeback trail. Last week, it added Association of Volleyball Professionals beach volleyball to its roster.

While continuing to enhance its lineup, which will feature Phelps competing this summer at the world championships, and then World Cup skiing and other snow-sports competitions leading up to Vancouver next February, Universal Sports won't have Winter Games coverage per se.

“There is only one-third the action for the Winter Games, versus the Summer Games. There isn't enough room for all [NBCU properties],” said Zenkel, noting that the network is still finalizing its lineup for the Vancouver time period.

He added that Universal Sports has not yet had discussions about its role for NBCU's coverage of the 2012 Summer Games in London.

And what if NBC doesn't secure U.S. rights to the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, or the 2016 Summer Games, which are expected to come up for bid in the months ahead?

“There's three and a half years until [London]. There's a lot of great programming out there in the meantime and we want to reach that audience and improve the value of the network,” said Zenkel. “The channel's existence doesn't have to be tied to carrying the Olympics.”

Still, Universal Sports wants to be a home for Olympic and U.S. Olympic sponsors to activate and express their ties to the Games.

“Universal Sports is a great place for advertisers to add value to their buys,” said Ruibal, who noted that the service is engaged in those conversations now.

Having almost completed its negotiations on the multicast side of the table — among telcos, the service is available to about 75% of the Verizon Communications footprint, but AT&T's U-verse has not yet launched multicasting — Universal Sports has initiated conversations with DirecTV, and is talking to smaller cable operators to fill in distribution holes. It also plans to reach out to the National Cable Television Cooperative shortly.

“Long-term, our plan is to grow Universal Sports into a fully distributed digital-basic channel,” said Zenkel. “We'd also like to see an HD companion service. And we think we have great, rich content that would be perfect for video-on-demand platforms.”