Versus Needs Big Football Splash

If any doubts remained, football’s booming start on television leaves no doubt that it is arguably the most dominant television franchise. The NFL was up across the board during its first week, even more telling it’s meaningless preseason games ranked near the top of the weekly primetime ratings. The buck doesn’t stop with the NFL though, college football has been on fire as well. Last week’s OSU-USC game was the most watched ever on ESPN (including bowl games), and this week’s UT-Florida game was one of the best on CBS in recent years. Notre Dame has posted solid ratings, as did ESPN’s other big games.

While the NFL’s TV deals are locked up and game packages static for now, college football is not – and it can have a significant impact for a network. We’ve spoke about the upcoming contract negotiations for the ACC, Pac-10, and Big 12. If Versus wants to become a significant player in sports television, it needs to make a big push on one or more of those properties for exclusive basketball and football coverage. Hockey is not and will never be a big enough television property to carry a network. Tour de France and MMA have boosted Versus, but the ratings and revenue will never be mistaken for a Florida State-Miami football game or UNC and Duke basketball games.

Versus tried to make a splash bidding on the NFL Thursday night package, losing out to NFL Network thanks to some extenuating circumstances. That made it clear they want to be a player. More importantly, with deep-pocketed Comcast running the show, Versus has the money it would take to lock up these rights. If Versus can partner with two of these conferences its subscriber fees immediately become more valuable, its distribution would reach the next level, and Ad Sales would receive a jolt.

The conferences also have a lot at stake, mainly they need revenues to match the SEC and Big 10 in order to compete, and they need the marketing machine that ESPN provides its properties. Without other sports to steal the spotlight (i.e. MLB, NBA, NFL, golf, tennis, etc.), Versus can put a conference like the Pac-10 front and center on a national stage, providing the exposure new commissioner Larry Scott seeks.

Down the road, if the plan succeeds Versus would position itself to make serious runs at the NBA, MLB, and maybe even NFL in the future. At some point, though, if Versus wants to be a serious player in ESPN’s world, Comcast needs to push the chips to the middle and go for it. The NHL and bike racing is hardly coveted sports programming. Big college football and basketball – Top 25 games and historically powerhouse schools can move the needle. Add a conference tournament, some bowl games, and suddenly the 1-2 ratings the NHL gets for playoff games move to 3-4 ratings for big college games.

Ancillary to television, additional content and presumably some sports personalities, would make the web property more valuable (though not a hard task given the lack of web presence the network currently has). Destination programming would also make the network more valuable in Comcast’s TV Everywhere push and network of online TV content, providing synergy value across the company. College sports programming also opens the door for content licensing in local markets – another revenue stream to cover programming costs.

It carries risk, but the ratings show football is about as steadfast as you can get with programming and college fans have shown they will find their teams on television. College can take the network to the next echelon, and possibly help get to the tipping point of national prominence where it can get better channel placement and better affiliate deals.

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