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Universal Sports Closure a Sign of Times

The pending demise of Universal Sports Network highlights the difficulty niche networks, even ones that are chock full of live events, have navigating the complicated hallways of carriage negotiation.

Universal Sports Network is going dark on Nov. 16, with certain of its sports rights going to minority partner NBCUniversal’s NBC Sports Network.

Confirmation of the closure (first reported by Sports Business Journal) came from NBCU: “We are thrilled to be finalizing an agreement with Universal Sports that will provide NBCUniversal and NBC Sports with an impressive collection of media rights to some of the world’s most prestigious sporting events. We will have more information regarding our plans when the transaction closes in November.”

Universal Sports referred all comments to NBCU. Scott Brown, the channel president, could not be reached for comment, but told Broadcasting & Cable earlier this month he found the distribution challenges “frustrating” despite reaching agreements that made the service available to 65 million households.

SOME NETS STRUGGLE

Smaller sports networks like Outdoor Channel and Tennis Channel are finding it increasingly hard to maintain carriage with major distributors. Outdoor and sister network Sportsman Channel lost carriage on Verizon Communications’s FiOS TV in what FiOS termed a cost-cutting move. Tennis Channel battled Comcast over what the channel called discriminatory practices by Comcast favoring its own networks. Tennis Channel won a favorable ruling from a Federal Communications Commission administrative law judge in 2011 that it later lost in federal court.

Universal Sports had a different path in mind. It launched in 2006 as World Championship Sports, but parent InterMedia Partners changed the name to Universal Sports Network in 2008 after NBC Universal bought an 8% stake in the channel.

Initially, the deal made Universal Sports available on the digital sub-channels of all 10 of NBC’s owned-and-operated TV stations.

The plan was for stations to strike deals with cable operators to carry the channel using retransmission-consent leverage, a plan that didn’t result in significant carriage.

As a cable network, Universal Sports landed carriage on satellite-TV providers DirecTV and Dish Network and on smaller operators in the National Cable Television Cooperative. But it was unable to break onto Comcast lineups, even though Comcast is the parent of minority owner NBCU.

Charter Communications and Cablevision Systems also were carriage holdouts.

LHB Sports, Entertainment & Media president and CEO Lee H. Berke said that when Universal Sports did not become the cable channel Olympic Network, it lost momentum. And last year, when the International Olympic Committee announced plans to launch its own digital network in 2016, “Universal Sports was not part of that conversation,” Berke noted.

Universal Sports had rights to several Olympic-sport events, including cycling’s Vuelta a Espana and Tour of Britain; the 2015 Track and Field Championships; the U.S. Gymnastics Championships; and the FIS Alpine Skiing World Cup.

Most recently, the network has telecast 2015 Rugby World Cup matches, along with NBC.

DISTRIBUTORS BALKED

Universal Sports, which charged about 22 cents per subscriber per month, according to SNL Kagan, may also have hit resistance from cost-conscious distributors.

“These niche sports have niche audiences that are really interested in finding them online,” Berke added. “That could have been a way to go.”