OLN broadens horizons -- indoors with NHL

Media: A two-year contract with the hockey league puts the Outdoor Life Network in position to be No. 2 behind ESPN.

Media

August 19, 2005|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

What does hockey immortal Mario Lemieux have in common with rodeo bulls and Survivor champion Richard Hatch?

Well, starting this fall, all three could be stars on the Outdoor Life Network, which already broadcasts bull riding and re-runs of the reality television hit and will now televise National Hockey League games.

The combination might seem odd to the average sports fan, but cable television experts say OLN's two-year deal with the NHL -- announced late Wednesday night -- may be a sign of big things to come for the 10-year old network, traditionally known for outdoor programming.

They say Comcast Corp., the cable distribution giant that owns OLN, may be fashioning the network into a mainstream sports station that, if it can't compete with ESPN, can at least be a strong No. 2.

"They're the ones on the block who have the muscle to at least entertain the possibility," said Bob Gutkowski, a sports television consultant and former president of Madison Square Garden. "They have the money and they have the biggest cable ownership in the country."

Dean Bonham, a Denver-based sports marketing consultant, said Comcast is making a "brilliant move" by retooling OLN.

"They understand the sports business as well as anyone," he said.

Hockey is a first step, Gutkowski said, but Comcast would have to acquire another centerpiece, like NFL or Major League Baseball games, to make a run at ESPN.

"Just picking up these peripheral events doesn't put you on the same playing field," he said. "The only way to ever do it is to write some really big checks. But if you're willing to do that and be aggressive, then there might be some opportunity."

Comcast officials have denied planning a challenge to ESPN.

"Some of the speculation has frothed over too much," Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said in a conference call with stock analysts earlier this month. "We're not in any way trying to take on another network."

But they acknowledge trying to broaden OLN's appeal to casual sports viewers.

OLN has gained some stature among general sports fans with its coverage of Lance Armstrong's Tour de France triumphs. The network's aggressive promotion led to ratings increases for the race in 2004 and 2005. But with Armstrong retired, Comcast sought a new centerpiece for OLN.

The network has bought into other niche events such as the America's Cup sailing race, Motocross and volleyball, but the NHL deal is its first foray into major pro sports.

Comcast will pay $135 million to broadcast the NHL over the next two seasons, with options to extend the deal to six years. OLN will show between 58 and 78 regular-season games, as well as the conference quarterfinals and conference finals.

OLN will show games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals, with NBC showing the remainder.

Negotiations began in early summer after ESPN decided not to pick up its option to broadcast league games this season. ESPN then declined its right to match Comcast's offer on Wednesday.

Bonham said Comcast is "incredibly smart" to start with the NHL, because he figures the spread of high-definition television and wide-screen sets will do wonders for the sport.

"I may be in the minority on this, but I think that the NHL will become a compelling broadcast property within the next five years," he said.

Other reports have said Comcast is seeking a small batch of late-season NFL games to be broadcast on OLN in the 2006 season.

Comcast officials aren't commenting.

Past challengers to ESPN's cable sports throne have faltered quickly, unable to match the network's combination of live events, nightly news and sports talk.

Cable News Network partnered with Sports Illustrated in hopes of creating a nightly competitor to SportsCenter. But the program never drew the audience or critical raves common for the ESPN heavyweight.

Fox lured away Keith Olbermann and several other ESPN stars in the late 1990s, but could never consolidate its pockets of regional sports programming into a national network with the brand or ratings appeal of ESPN.

"They're one of the strongest brands out there," Gutkowski said of ESPN. "They've put many years and many millions between themselves and any competitor. It would really take a herculean effort to go after them."

Comcast officials acknowledge that they're trying to broaden OLN's appeal, but are careful to say ESPN is unassailable.

"ESPN is in such a league of its own and has established such a strong brand ... that it would be impossible for us to take on ESPN even if we wanted to," said Steve Burke, Comcast's chief operating officer, in the conference call with investors.

OLN reaches about 63 million households, compared to 90 million for ESPN, and about 100,000 people watch OLN on the average night, compared to more than a million viewers for ESPN and ESPN2.

ESPN officials have expressed little concern when asked about OLN's pursuit of major sports.

"We face competition from many networks that broadcast sports," said ESPN spokeswoman Diane Lamb. "We continue to focus on enhancing ESPN and serving the fans. Through that relationship with the fans and hard work, we've built a leading collection of multimedia sports assets."

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