Versus’ Davis Eyes More Originals, Revamped Digital Strategy

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Jamie Davis says he arrived at Versus at the right time.

Davis, who in succeeding Gavin Harvey as president, has been at the helm of the Comcast Corp.-owned service since the Tuesday after Labor Day. He says the network’s National Hockey League franchise and mixed martial arts circuit World Extreme Cagefighting have triggered plenty of audience growth, including a bevy of younger male viewers.

“Versus has been on a roll. Over the past two years, the median age has decreased from 47 to 43,” said Davis. “Year to date, we’re in the top five of all cable network in growth with males 18 to 34 [ahead 59%] and 18 to 49 [up 48%].”

And Davis, who spent the past dozen years with ESPN Sports Star in Asia, most recently in Singapore, believes there’s more on the horizon with the recent addition of the Indy Racing League, an upcoming revamp of Versus’ digital strategy and more original productions.

Versus, which counts some 74 million subscribers, is also bridging the distribution gap with ESPN’s 96 million. Davis said Time Warner Cable launched Versus to 214,000 homes in Cincinnati on Oct. 3. Last month, the network was pushed from Armstrong’s digital package to expanded basic, resulting in a gain of 70,000 homes in Pittsburgh, home to the NHL Penguins, the 2008 Stanley Cup finalist.

Last season, Versus recorded major gains with the NHL, scoring 50% ratings (0.3) and 28% viewership (272,417) upticks. The post-season produced the puck sports strongest Nielsens on cable since 2002, culminating with the network’s most-watched telecast ever, 2.54 million viewers for its Game 2 coverage of the Stanley Cup Finals.. 

“The argument was that it was all American teams deep in the playoffs (no unrated Nielsen entries from Canada). Usually, things to start to build after the All-Star game leading into the playoffs, but ratings were strong throughout and the postseason was great,” said Davis. “This season’s international openers [an Oct. 5 doubleheader] grew 161% with men 18 to 34 and 157% with men 18 to 49. I don’t think this is a one-hit wonder.”

Davis also thinks Versus will drive a hit with IRL. In August, the network inked a 10-year pact with the racing circuit calling for a minimum of 13 races annually, plus a pit full of ancillary programming.

“[Indy cars] have been around a lot longer than NASCAR. We’re going to spend more time with the telecasts. We’re going to educate the viewers, expose them to more elements of the sport. There will be profile on the racers, including Danica Patrick,” he said. “There is going to be all kinds of programming during May leading up to the Indy 500. IRL absolutely has huge potential.”

Davis also sees more prospective gains through Versus’ revamped approach to its new media properties. One of Davis’ initial moves was to hire one-time ESPN executive Neil Scarbrough from as vice president of digital media.

“Versus must serve fans any time and any place he or she is ready. We want the two-way experience with fans on the Internet, with broadband and mobile,” said Davis, who labeli event streaming another “one-way experience.”

He said the network’s digital-media is to greatly enhance the viewer experience, not just provide data. “Again, the idea is to super-serve fans. We’re not just interested in scores, stats, and highlights. Those things are commodities. We’re not interested in becoming a digital me-too,” he said. Davis expects to see the first fruits of Scarbrough’s digital labor early next year.

He’s also awaiting reaction to the Oct. 14 debut of Sports Soup, an irreverent look at sports, which is receiving promotional assists from the Comcast family of SportsNets and comes from the same production team behind E!’s series The Soup..

Davis said there are a number of other projects under consideration although he wouldn’t tip his development hand, other than to say the fare didn’t necessarily have to be a studio production. He said original productions could also be tied to new leagues or events.

Davis acknowledges that Versus has become more “horizontal, but not completely flat, with several vertical pillars.”

Those also include the Professional Bull Riders circuit, the signature Tour de France (a returning Lance Armstrong will figure prominently in the first of a new five-year contract extension Versus signed in July) and a continued emphasis on field and stream sports that date to the channel’s Outdoor Life Network roots.

“We present hunting and fishing in primetime on Friday and on weekends,” he said. “This is important programming for us. We will not stray from our loyal fan base.”

Now in the second of a 10-year plan, Versus wants to take a look at such top-flight properties as NASCAR and MLB down the road, and perhaps take another run at NFL. Under the OLN banner, the network bid for an eight-game primetime package, before the pro football league awarded the contests to the in-house NFL Network.

He said that with acquisition of IRL, there is “nothing must-have that is available right now." But that could change.

“We’re going to focus on what we have now, build up our digital properties and original productions with [Sports Soup host] Matt [Iseman] and Mark Burnett [the fourth season of boxing reality series The Contender is scheduled to debut Dec. 3],” he said, adding that most major properties are under contract. “You never know, though, about out-clauses and what could become available. IRL approached Versus because they liked what we’ve done with enhanced coverage of NHL and other properties. We certainly would be interested in the right property.”

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