Another name change: Versus to NBC Sports Network

Posted Jan. 02, 2012, at 2:16 p.m.

NEW YORK — The cable channel with three names in 5½ years is getting its new identity from one of the most recognizable brands in sports broadcasting.

Once Outdoor Life Network, now Versus, it will become NBC Sports Network on Monday.

What’s in a name? Linking the channel to such a known quantity could make an impact as simple as encouraging cable companies to stick it in a more high-profile spot on the dial.

“In some areas we’re not easy to find,” NBC Sports Group Chairman Mark Lazarus told The Associated Press. “But we think we will give more value to distributors by having that.”

The channel’s parent company, Comcast, took over NBCUniversal in January 2011, and the peacock’s imprint quickly appeared on Versus. NBC announcers, NBC production, NBC cross-promotions.

Monday was chosen as a natural fit for the name change because that’s when the NHL Winter Classic airs on NBC, offering plenty of opportunities to trumpet the switch. Versus’ biggest sports property is hockey, with the Comcast-NBC merger putting both of the NHL’s U.S. national contracts under the same company.

At 4 p.m. EST, the new name will become official with the Winter Classic postgame show on the cable channel. Next come examples of the new programming NBC has added on Versus: a documentary from former HBO Sports President Ross Greenburg about the 1972 Summit Series pitting Canadian and Soviet hockey teams and the studio show “NBC SportsTalk.”

Lazarus hopes the familiarity of the NBC Sports name will lend the network credibility with potential viewers. But the biggest audience growth will come from adding more live sports, and that’s not as instantaneous as a logo change.

“This is a five-year plan,” Lazarus said. “This is going to take time.”

NBC signed a deal with Major League Soccer earlier this year that will put games on the cable channel that first became known for its Tour de France coverage. But most other contracts for high-profile sports are at least a couple of years from expiring.

“We’re going to take a deep breath for about eight days and then we’re ready to start again,” Lazarus said about a year in which NBC extended its Olympic, NFL and NHL agreements. “There is a little bit of a lull. We’ll see over the next few years you’ve got maybe more football, NASCAR, baseball — and we’ll be serious about those discussions when we’re given the opportunity.”

The soon-to-be NBC Sports Network is in about two-thirds of American homes with televisions, compared with around 86 percent for the behemoth of all-sports channels, ESPN. As NBC builds its cable partner, it carries a different philosophy from ESPN, which runs ABC’s sports programming but chooses to broadcast many top events itself.

“We think keeping a lot of the premium product on NBC can help drive the cable network,” Lazarus said. “We don’t think it’s one or the other. We believe the value we can bring to rights holders is by using both platforms effectively. We very much believe in the broadcast television model for sports and that we can drive big audiences and in that grow our cable businesses alongside. We’re not abandoning the broadcast model.”

The Comcast-NBC merger already ensures some very popular events will soon be airing on the renamed channel — with the chance to attract many new viewers. NBC Sports Network will be the No. 2 outlet for the London Olympics next summer. NBC has yet to determine which sports will air on it, Lazarus said, but the coverage will be heavy with U.S. teams and marquee American athletes.

Also coming in 2012 is MLS, with 38 regular-season games keeping a steady stream of live sports on NBC Sports Network after the NHL winds down.

“They’re a very affluent audience,” said Jon Miller, the president of programming for NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network. “They’re a very well-educated audience and very desirable audience for advertisers.”

The NFL is determining whether to add a second Thursday night package to the current late-season slate on the NFL Network that would be sold to an outside company — and there’s nothing like football to build a cable channel’s audience. NBC Sports Network already knows it’s getting a Sunday morning pregame show in 2014 as part of the new deal with the league.

“We believe we’re going to grow this business on an accelerated pace,” Lazarus said. “But we have realistic expectations that we’re in the second or third inning of a long game.”

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