- The Washington Times - Friday, July 14, 2006

Without Lance Armstrong coasting through the French countryside in a yellow jersey, this year’s Tour de France is attracting little more than a collective sigh of ennui.

As riders in cycling’s paramount event ascend the punishing Pyrenees, executives at cable network OLN are hoping viewership increases from just 200,000 viewers a day, a 50 percent drop-off from last year when Armstrong won his seventh consecutive Tour before retiring.

“Nobody likes this kind of dip,” OLN president Gavin Harvey said. “But just like the NBA after Michael Jordan, we’re seeing it after Lance. We knew we’d take a hit. We factored that into everything we did.”

OLN scored record ratings for the Tour in 2005, and Armstrong’s success gave the Tour unprecedented status as he began dominating the event in 1999 following a well-documented recovery from cancer.

“He transcended not only cycling, but sports,” Harvey said. “We knew this was going to be sort of a reassessment year … what we’re seeing now is what we anticipated.”

But while OLN officials said they expected this year’s ratings drop, it comes even as U.S. rider Floyd Landis, who took the overall lead yesterday, has presented one of the event’s more interesting stories as he battles a degenerative hip condition that could make this Tour his last.

“What we see happen in these instances is the casual fan falls to the sideline, and the avid fans typically continue to watch,” said Ray Artigue, executive director of the Sports Business MBA program at Arizona State University. “If [ratings] have fallen off by half, that’s significant, and it will probably take a couple races at least before people get used to the fact that Lance Armstrong is not trying to repeat.”

The Tour was dealt a second big blow just one day before it began, when 17 riders, including 1997 winner and five-time runner-up Jan Ullrich, were suspended after being named in a doping investigation. The news cast a shadow on the event, which endured a major doping scandal in 1998.

“It’s difficult when everyone is gearing up for a certain type of race and then all of the sudden you have this event where all of the top riders are pushed out,” Harvey acknowledged. But he also said this year’s race, without Armstrong, Ullrich and other top riders, is far more wide-open, leading the network to anticipate an unpredictable last two weeks.

“We have no idea how this race is going to end up,” Harvey said. “If you’re into the sport and into the event, it’s as interesting as it’s ever been.”

Harvey said while television viewership is down, the network is encouraged by a heavy increase in visitors to OLN’s Web site, which has videos of the race and interviews available for download, as well as updated standings. Page views of the site are up 21 percent over last year, and fans have downloaded 900,000 video clips, compared to about 400,000 in 2005.

“You have to take a hit to your bottom line, but this is how people want to consume the race,” Harvey said.

With rumors of Armstrong’s plans to retire surfacing as far back as 2003, OLN made a conscious decision to gradually increase coverage of other riders and provide race analysis unrelated to Armstrong, Harvey said. Whether such a move was immediately obvious to viewers is the subject of debate — OLN was often derisively dubbed Only Lance News — but Harvey said the network always knew Armstrong could hang it up at any time.

OLN will officially be renamed Versus in September as part of a repositioning away from its roots as a network for outdoor sports such as hunting and rodeo. The network now also broadcasts NHL hockey games and many Olympic-style sports, and has reportedly been interested in acquiring some rights to Major League Baseball games. The length of the network’s contract with the Tour de France has never been disclosed. But OLN has revealed the deal extends for several more years — giving the network time to regain the cycling audience it has lost.

“It’s a long-standing tradition that’s not going anywhere,” Artigue said. “It has it’s place as the premier cycling event in the world. And that’s how it should be viewed, instead of staking it against or comparing it to other competitions.”

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