After Lance, a far
bolder race for OLN
As a challenger to ESPN's dominance in sports
By Dan Weil
There’s certainly some irony
here. Weeks ago ESPN
passed on renewing its hockey rights deal, having implied during the lockout
that it didn’t care if it ever got hockey back, so poor were its ratings.
But this week, possibly as soon as
today, ESPN may extend its deal after all, and not entirely
out of choice. The network might do it simply to keep the NHL out of the
hands of OLN, which has suddenly become a big worry for ESPN.
How things have changed.
The question confronting OLN
after its coverage of the Tour de France ended last month was what it
would do after Lance Armstrong’s retirement.
Now we have the answer. The network long known for hunting
and fishing is fast emerging as a challenger to ESPN's preeminence
in sports coverage.
And while the question of whither OLN was much-talked about
during Armstrong's final tour, the ambition to challenge ESPN appears to
have been in the works for some time, long before the race and probably
since owner Comcast's failed Disney takeover bid last year. Comcast wanted
OLN, formerly the Outdoor Life Network, changed its name to simply
OLN in July to distance itself from the hunting and fishing crowd. Now OLN
is going after major sports: the NHL, NFL and perhaps even NASCAR, and it
has the considerable wealth of Comcast to either win these sports away
from ESPN or at the least bid the price up to new levels.
The question for advertisers is when OLN will be competitive with
ESPN. The answer may be sooner than you’d think.
“I think it will be a viable competitor to ESPN2 and ESPN Classic
in two to five years, and it could challenge ESPN’s main network in 10
years,” says Karen McCallum, who supervises ad buying for McKee Wallwork
Henderson Advertising in Albuquerque.
Media buyers would welcome a competitor to ESPN to give them
leverage, much as they value Telemundo as a point of leverage against the
far larger Univision for reaching the Hispanic audience.
For certain, OLN still has a long way to go, with
bull riding its most popular non-Tour programming. Its expansion has begun with
reruns of “Survivor” and recently acquired rights to the Boston
Marathon, America’s Cup and the Iditarod.
Its bid for the National Hockey League would be an important
step, in a deal that would pay the league $100 million over two years. OLN
would take over from ESPN, which dropped the struggling sport after last
Though the NHL limped to a 0.2 rating in its last season on ESPN2,
that’s double OLN’s primetime average during second quarter.
OLN also is reportedly negotiating with the NFL to broadcast
late-season Thursday and Saturday games. There is even talk that OLN will
go after NASCAR.
“It’s been clear that Comcast has been interested in a national
sports network for years,” says Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp, a
sports business consulting firm in Chicago. “[Comcast CEO] Brian Roberts
has made clear that sports is the company’s centerpiece.”
based in Stamford, Conn., debuted in 1995, and Comcast took full control
in 2001. The network reaches some 60 million homes, compared with nearly
90 million for ESPN.
In a recent conference call with analysts, Roberts and Comcast
CFO Stephen Burke denied they are looking to take on ESPN.
But given that Comcast carries ESPN on its cable system, it
makes sense that it would keep any intentions quiet. Comcast obviously has
no incentive to tip its hand to the company that would be its major
competitor. Comcast clearly has the financial wherewithal to compete with
ESPN. It needs the content to do so.
“Now they need compelling programming,” Ganis says. “It’s
no surprise they’re talking to the NHL and NFL. The NHL fills time, and
the NFL is compelling programming.”
Aug. 17, 2005
Weil is a Florida writer.