tv reporter

Versus vies for eyes with competitive zeal

You might think that for Connecticut's other all-sports network, living in the shadow of its bigger rival would be uncomfortable.

ESPN might get all the headlines and plaudits, but Versus, the Stamford-based sports channel once known as Outdoor Life Network, is carving out a niche for itself in the unforgiving world of sports TV.

As it celebrates almost a year with its new name, Versus remains in transformation. For its first decade, it was known primarily for its hunting and fishing programs and such lower-tier sports properties as the Tour de France, the Boston Marathon and Professional Bull Riding. But in the past two years, the Comcast-owned channel has assembled an eclectic blend of programming that plays to Versus' brand proposition of passionate competition.

It became the exclusive, long-term cable home of the NHL after the league and ESPN parted ways in 2005. It added Mountain West college football last year and this year will increase the number of games this season to 19, including Pacific 10 and Big 12 contests. It televised the America's Cup yacht races this year, will have the World Cup of Rugby starting in September and this month will air track and field's world championships from Japan.

"We may not be the biggest network, but we think the competition on our network is just as dramatic," says Gavin Harvey, who became president of the channel more than three years ago. It has gone from 55 million homes to 72 million today after a sometimes contentious battle with distributors.

Harvey has steered the channel into success in the wider sports arena while it maintains its roots as a destination for the outdoors enthusiast. This has happened beyond one of its greatest achievements, when it rode to ratings success with the Lance Armstrong era of the Tour de France.

Ratings plummeted in 2006, a year after Armstrong stepped off the bike. This year's live ratings were down 10% amid the doping scandals and the lack of well-known American riders, but Harvey thinks there's hope for the event. He believes that cycling is cleaning up, and through it all, Versus has seen increased DVR viewing of the Tour de France plus millions more online video streams than even during the Armstrong era.

"We still feel the sport has incredible vitality," Harvey says.

Harvey sees more good times ahead for the channel, with its current programming and its expansion into one of the industry's biggest growth areas, mixed martial arts. It recently signed a deal with Zuffa, which owns the Ultimate Fighting Championship, for what Harvey thinks is going to be the next big thing in MMA: cage fighting. It also is a way for Versus to compete against its deep-pocketed rivals.

"We felt we could go in and compete; we're not locked out," Harvey says. "We can control our own destiny."

Two cage-fighting specials already have been on Versus, and the ratings are encouraging. There will be another one or two this year, and Harvey says Versus and Zuffa are negotiating a longer-term deal.

At the same time, the channel is not abandoning the hunting and fishing enthusiasts. Versus is building a state-of-the-art HD studio in Stamford and producing its hunting and fishing shows in HD. A lot of the programming surrounds whitetail deer, the most popular type of hunting.

"We want to become the official network of whitetail deer," Harvey says.