If you picked up our ink-and-paper edition today, you may have come across a Q&A with Versus President Jamie Davis. We had to edit some of it for space considerations, so here is the full, unedited transcript:
You took over for former Versus President Gavin Harvey in September after serving as managing director for ESPN Star Sports in Asia. What were your marching orders?
Well, we really are in the middle of a ten-year plan to continue to grow the network from what was Outdoor Life Network, with hunting a fishing, into more of a mainstream sports network. Gavin did a fantastic job, and it was a good foundation he put in place. One of the things I was brought in to do was continue that march towards becoming mainstream sports network. We’re not looking to abandon our outdoor sports by any mean but really what we’re doing is going from becoming a 24/7 outsdoor sports network to bringing in other traditional sports, ones that have passionate fan bases and also have a good overlap in the demographics to those people who watch field sports, so we can grow the network. And it’s working. We started with the NFL. 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. To give you a sense of how that compares, Speed Channel was up about 13 percent. ESPN was up about eight. ESPN2 was down 2 percent, ESPNews was down about 4 percent. ESPNClassic was down 30 percent. So 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.
A lot of people look at Versus and compare it to ESPN. That may not necessarily be fair, but I’m wondering what the biggest challenges have been so far in getting the viewership and distribution up to that level.
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. So the migration has rapidly allowed us to extend our reach. Versus is available to everyone across the country…we weren’t like that before, 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.
The NHL seems to be on a fairly steady growth path. Given that its your marquee sports property, how pleased are you?
We’ve worked very closely with them to mutually build there 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 18-34 is up 63 percent and men 18-49 are up 50 percent. The median age of our network has come down from 47 years to 43 years as well and really attractive to our advertisers.
We know that Versus in the past tried to land some rights for other major leagues like baseball and the NFL. It appears most of those leagues are in the middle of TV deals, but do you see an opportunity to land a portion of TV rights for any of the major leagues out there?
We pretty much explore anything that’s out there. But our real strategy here is to find sports that fit what we’re about. We’re certainly keeping our eyes open. Like you said, most of these properties are in the middle of long-term deals right now, but as properties come up we certainly will evaluate like anything. We’re not looking to acquire just anything that’s out there, we’re looking to find a property out there that fits what we’re about and really get behind them.
After spending a number of years in Asia, what lessons do you bring to the table?
One of the big things in Asia is the digital media. Internet, interactivity, mobile is all far in advance of what’s happened here in the United States. I want to be able to expand our offering so that Versus can be available to our sports fans anytime and anyplace via any device that they are on.
Another priority for us is to really build up our original programming offering. Our new show Sports Soup is an example.
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?
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 so that we could really get out there and grow that audience. We’re going to be starting our coverage in March with four one-hour specials and our windows for the races, which used to be two hours, will be three hours. You’ll see pre-race, post-race 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. By giving them so much exposure and bringing in our other Versus fans I think we’ll be able to find a way to grow the overall IRL audience.