In a maneuver aimed at getting its sports-TV assets on par with those of Walt Disney's ESPN, NBC Universal said today it would rename the Versus sports-cable channel the NBC Sports Network as of Jan. 2, and would make use of the NHL Winter Classic and Super Bowl in early 2012 to help promote the revamped outlet.
The move illustrates the ambitions of NBC Universal's new majority owner, Comcast Corp. Ad buyers and other media executives have long noted a desire on the part of Steve Burke, NBC Universal's CEO, to develop an asset of the stature of ESPN. Versus is not that , but there are hopes that it could be by using NBC Sports' relationship with the Olympics, coverage of the National Hockey League, ownership of The Golf Channel, and broadcasts of Sunday Night Football to up its game.
"This is more than just a name change for Versus," Mark Lazarus, chairman-NBC Sports Group, said in a statement. "It's a complete repositioning of the brand to provide value for marketers, consumers as well as all our affiliates and distributors."
The idea, he suggested, would be to raise the production values of programs running on NBC Sports Network, so that they look much more like events on NBC. During the Olympics and other big matches, for instance, the network has long been known for its production of journalistic video packages that delve in to an athlete's biography or gets behind the scenes of how a team got to an important milestone.
The former Versus has a long way to go. In 2010, it generated about $110.7 million in ad revenue, according to Kantar, up just 3.1% from the approximately $107.4 million it generated in 2009. Sibling network Golf Channel drew significantly more -- around $231.8 million -- last year. For its part, ESPN attracted approximately $1.74 billion in 2010, Kantar said, up about 14.1% from the roughly $1.52 billion it generated in 2009.
NBC said it would use the last broadcast of "Sunday Night Football" (slated to air Jan. 1); the Jan. 2 airing of the NHL Winter Classic; Jan. 7 coverage of an NFL wild card playoff doubleheader; and the Feb. 5 broadcast of Super Bowl XLVI to promote the change.