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Olympics Golden for Universal Sports

The Winter Olympics in Vancouver are shaping up to be a golden opportunity for multicast channel Universal Sports.

With sports proving to be one of the last bastions of live viewing in the DVR age, Universal Sports has been using last summer's Beijing Games as a springboard to broader distribution in the run-up to the Vancouver Games in February 2010. “We believe there's great momentum around the Olympics coming out of Beijing,” says Gary Zenkel, president of NBC Olympics.

The Beijing Games ranked as the most-viewed TV event ever, averaging 27 million viewers a day for a total U.S. audience of 211 million, according to Nielsen. “Universal Sports is a great way to continue to offer those who were inspired by Olympic athletes or Olympic sports a platform to feed their interest and feed their enthusiasm,” Zenkel says.

The network recently added 20 new markets with an additional 19 million households, bringing the network's distribution to more than 45 million homes. In most of the new markets that include popular skiing areas, such as Denver and Salt Lake City, NBC affiliates opted to carry the channel. Affiliates are given the right of first refusal. In several markets (Reno, Houston) where the local affiliate passed, a non-affiliate opted in.

The network is the exclusive home of dozens of winter sports and events, including the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Alpine World Ski Championships, world championships in bobsled and skeleton, and the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for curling. The sport reached cult status during the Torino Games and was shown in primetime on CNBC. Universal Sports would seem to be a more intuitive place to put Olympic curling, but Zenkel would not offer specifics about where it will air during the Vancouver Games.


Specialty sports like skiing and cycling also have the potential to bring new advertisers into the tent. For instance, Vail Resorts will kick off a national buy on the network this month. Zenkel is hopeful that buy will offer an incentive to other specialty advertisers. “We see that as a great pilot for us to go out and talk to the other resorts in Aspen and the Tahoe area,” he says.

“When you get one major sponsor to sign on,” adds Claude Ruibal, CEO of Universal Sports, “the others say, 'Well, if they believe, then we should believe, too.'”

NBC will air all of the marquee Olympic events; Universal Sports' position as a potential destination for spillover Olympic coverage is also a distinguishing selling point in the multicastmarket.

“When you talk about multicast, people look at you a little funny and you've got to explain it to them,” Zenkel says. “It's something that's relatively new and so we need to educate advertisers; we need to educate rights holders on exactly what multicast is.”


Currently, Universal Sports distribution is all in the local affiliate multi-carriage spectrum rather than through satellite or cable providers. In more than half of the network's homes, about 24 million, the multicast signal is passed through by the cable operators as part of retransmission deals.

The network is well-positioned on most cable grids. For instance, on Time Warner Cable in New York, the No. 1 DMA, it's at 162. The impending digital switchover will give Universal Sports advantageous placement in non-cable homes, where it will be among about 15 channels to show up on most digital converter boxes.

“As a network, we want to be fully distributed so we're pursuing all available platforms,” Ruibal says.

Ruibal started the network as World Championship Sports Network in 2006, securing crucial rights contracts with dozens of sports. When NBC Universal took an equity stake in the network last summer (rechristening it Universal Sports), it went from a few million homes to more than 20 million.

“Our distribution team has really been trying to push the envelope,” Ruibal adds. “We think there's really strong interest in the marketplace. And we're hoping to get to 60 million households by the end of the year.”