Versus geared for IRL

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It has been 2 1/2 years since Outdoor Life Network relaunched into the sports channel now known as Versus. In September, Versus hired Jamie Davis, a former ESPN executive, to guide the network over the next decade.

Davis spoke with The Washington Times as the network gears up for its latest challenge in broadcasting the Indy Racing League season, which starts in April. Here are the highlights of that interview, the full text of which can be read at washingtontimes.com:

Q: You came to Versus in September after serving as managing director for ESPN Star Sports in Asia. What were your marching orders?

A: Well, we really are in the middle of a 10-year plan to continue to grow the network from what was Outdoor Life Network, with hunting and fishing, into more of a mainstream sports network. And it’s working. We started with the NHL. We have college football with the Big 12, the Pac-10, the Mountain West. We brought in the WEC, which is our mixed martial arts and cage fighting. We have the Tour de France, as I’m sure you’re aware. And we have the IndyCar racing, which we’ll be launching in April. But what it’s done is it’s made us the fastest-growing sports network. Last year, we were up 24 percent in ratings. We’re starting to see for the first time viewers starting to migrate over to Versus. Our ratings are flying. The momentum’s continued into 2009 as well.

Q: It seems to me that part of the reason the Indy Racing League made the move from ESPN to Versus was that you showed an ability and willingness to show more than just the race from start to finish. What do you have planned?

A: We call it super-serving. The IRL was really interested in finding a partner that was interested in getting a lot of coverage out there. We’re going to be starting our coverage in March with four one-hour specials, and windows for the races, which used to be two hours, will be three hours. You’ll see prerace, postrace, and the night before there will be a one-hour preview with pole qualifiers and everything that happened the week before. We’re going to do seven hours a week every week. That’s the most that’s ever been done.

Q: A lot of people look at Versus and compare it to ESPN. That may not necessarily be fair, but what have been the biggest challenges so far in getting the viewership and distribution up to that level?

A: First, I want to be clear that we’re not trying to become ESPN. They do a great job, but that’s not what we want to become. We are trying to serve a fan base that we believe has been underserved in the past, which is to take certain sports and jump thigh-deep into them and really serve them. We’re in over 75 million households; we were in 60 million households when we were the Outdoor Life Network. Versus is available to everyone across the country… and I think it’s because now we’ve extended our offering. It’s become a more broad offering to sports fans, and therefore more sports fans have expressed a desire to get Versus. We also launched in December our 24/7 HD channel. Versus HD is in 16 million households already and is continuing to grow.

Q: The NHL seems to be on a fairly steady growth path. Given that it’s your marquee sports property, how pleased are you?

A: We’ve worked very closely with them to mutually build their sport and our network, and it’s working. Last year in the postseason, the Stanley Cup playoffs and conference finals were the highest-rated since 2002. But what’s been exciting is that we’ve been able to continue that momentum and parlay that into the regular season. This year’s regular season, in total viewers, we’re up 21 percent. And when we look at our key demos for our advertisers, men 18 to 34 is up 63 percent and men 18 to 49 are up 50 percent. The median age of our network has come down from 47 years to 43 years as well and (is) really attractive to our advertisers.

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