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After Lance, Tour Ratings Lag

Hampered by a doping scandal that claimed several contenders and the retirement of seven-time champion Lance Armstrong, OLN sustained significant ratings erosion in the early stages of the Tour de France.

Affiliate interest in the Tour sans Lance, though, has not waned, as OLN has sold out its local ad sales promotion tied to the cycling event, with participation outpacing last year’s level.

“There was concern, to be honest with you,” said Brad Fox, senior vice president, affiliate sales and marketing for OLN parent Comcast Corp.

But executives believe several factors have contributed to continued interest in the event, which will again span over 300 hours, on OLN. Beginning in 2004, when rumors of Armstrong’s retirement first rumbled, OLN looked to create fans of the sport through shows explaining its nuances and strategies. Fox also said that OLN’s coverage of the National Hockey League attracted new viewers who may now be sampling its cycling fare.

For this year’s Tour, OLN has signed on 260 systems, passing more than 57 million subscribers. By comparison, the promotions in 2005 reached 53 million cable homes.

To participate, local systems committed to running 300 advertising spots in exchange for local point-of-sale materials, created by Westport, Conn.-based agency Marlin Entertainment, that tout a sweepstakes in which customers can sign up for a chance to win a Trek 1500 bicycle. Local retailers that buy ads in the OLN telecasts are armed with marketing materials, water bottle premiums and sweepstakes signup sheets.

Operators not participating in the local ad sales were also asked to run 300 spots. The promos, created by OLN, enable those systems to designate various products, whether video on demand, digital video recorders or high-speed data, they would like to trumpet alongside the race.

The grand prize of the sweepstakes is a cycling trip for two to France.

From July 1 to 4, OLN was down 50% in gross household ratings to a 0.84 from the first four stages of the race last year, according to Nielsen Media Research data.

“The ratings are in line with what we anticipated in the post-Lance era of the Tour de France,” the network said in a statement. “With a holiday weekend crowded with great international sporting events behind us, and American stars like George Hincapie, Floyd Landis and Levi Leipheimer emerging, we’re confident that the interest in the Tour will continue to mount throughout the 23 days of the race, as it has in years past.”