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Is Versus a Contender?

Not long before trashing his knee at the U.S. Open, Tiger Woods did the same thing to the sport of hockey.

Asked on a media conference call who he was rooting for in the recent National Hockey League finals, Woods laughed and then cross-checked the entire sport: “I don't really care. Let's talk about the Dodgers,” he said of Los Angeles' baseball team. “I don't think anybody really watches hockey anymore.”

And while that shot stung the NHL, it was also felt at the headquarters of Versus, the cable network that—for now—is sustaining itself by using Canada's greatest non-Pam Anderson export as its centerpiece.

Versus execs understand that hockey is far from the endgame. But even if a network built around a sport with a limited audience wasn't Plan A and certainly isn't Plan C, it is getting by, and quietly plotting for a second swing at a major property. And that's when we'll find out if Versus can become a true player.

When Comcast rebranded the former Outdoor Life Network as Versus, the idea was to snatch up a couple of the major sports and take a run at being an alternative to the ESPN behemoth. One thinking was that grabbing the new late-season package the NFL was introducing and then coupling it with another property like NASCAR, baseball or even hockey would be a good backbone.

So when ESPN balked at the asking price in the $70 million range, Versus grabbed hockey, but then got frozen out by the NFL, which kept the package for its own NFL Network. No dice on NASCAR or anything else, either.

Versus execs quickly had to scramble to Plan B, and began to cobble together a network around hockey, the annual cycling and pharmaceutical contest known as the Tour de France, mixed martial arts and even bull riding, which apparently is not just staged for Marlboro Reds ads. Rivals at ESPN and Fox Sports took joy in quietly chiding the network and its “10-year plan.”

But after licking its wounds, Versus is plotting its second act, which revolves around setting up the framework of a network that it hopes will feature one or more of the sports it missed out on the first time around. One of the first steps is developing a series of signature studio shows, and the network has three in the works.

Versus also wants to continue to amass smaller sports properties. Execs recently met with IndyCar, the open-wheel auto racing outfit currently airing on ESPN. They also want to build up their stable of college football, and will launch a new halftime show this year.

In addition to sports properties, Versus continues to look at ancillary programming. The network is expected to acquire the rights to The Contender boxing series, which has been aired and jettisoned by both NBC and ESPN, and may begin running it this fall.

But everything is being done with a glance three to five years down the road, when major sports properties will begin to come up for bidding. And while Versus execs say the network is in the black now, they are also willing to blow up the business model to make a big swing.

“What a major sport would do is take us to a new level, no doubt,” says network chief Gavin Harvey. “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose [in the bidding], but people have started to talk about us with a respectable tone.”

At least more respectable than the way Tiger talks about hockey. Though for one year at least, Versus will get the last laugh, as more people will watch hockey than will watch Woods play golf…for as long as he is out injured, anyway.

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