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Volume 21 No. 2
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NBC Sports Net set to kick off five-year plan

When NBC flips the switch on Versus this week, it’s not just the network’s name and branding that will change. With programming from the NHL, MLS and the Olympics, NBC plans to fill the new NBC Sports Network’s most desirable time slots with more traditional sports.

“You’ll see more green and less brown,” said NBC Universal Sports & Olympics Chairman Mark Lazarus, referring to the difference between stick-and-ball programming and outdoor.

For a channel that launched in 1995 as the Outdoor Life Network devoted primarily to hunting and fishing shows, the change is significant.

Lazarus said the channel still is committed to outdoor programming, though the number of hours will be reduced.

“It brings in viewers and revenue,” Lazarus said. “We’re not trying to get out of it. We’re trying to put it in consistent dayparts.”

NBC plans to rebrand its outdoor programming blocks as NBC Sports Outdoors and run them in traditionally low-rated time slots: midmorning during the week and on weekends when NBC Sports Network does not have live events.

Lazarus says the renamed Versus won’t get rid of outdoors shows, just package them better.
“We’re the largest distributor with outdoor content,” Lazarus said, emphasizing the channel’s distribution, which is in 76 million homes. “We think we will improve the quality of our packaging in the outdoor space and continue to gain viewers.”

In the first half of 2012, Lazarus said NBC Sports Network will focus on supporting NBC Sports Group’s biggest events: the Super Bowl, NHL playoffs and the Olympics. He has the channel on a five-year plan. By 2017, Lazarus expects NBC Sports Network to be a much more important part of the TV sports landscape.

“NBC Sports Network is a work in progress,” Lazarus said. “It’s going to take five years to get to where I think it can be held in wide respect across the entire sports spectrum. … The one thing that I love about my bosses is that they have patience.”

Lazarus sat down with SportsBusiness Journal in his New York office in late December to talk about changes that already have taken place at NBC Sports Group, as well as changes that will be coming in 2012.

What should viewers expect when they turn on NBC Sports Network in March, two months after the rebrand?

LAZARUS: They will see a beautiful plume of peacock feathers instead of the black-and-red VS. You will see marketing and interstitials that will be relevant to storytelling and the legacy of NBC Sports. You will see strong hockey production with exclusive games. You will see Major League Soccer in the middle of March. You’ll see more green and less brown. You’ll see more stick-and-ball sports and more talk about stick-and-ball sports.

When did you know you wanted to rebrand Versus?

LAZARUS: The first day I heard it in 2006 when I was working somewhere else. As a competitor, I was OK with it because I didn’t think it was as strong a branding as it could have been. When I came into the fold here with Dick [Ebersol] early on, I said that’s one of the things that I think we should focus on early. It wasn’t my original thought. There were lots of people with that idea.

NBC paid a premium for the NHL and Olympics rights. Can sports networks make money today when sports rights are increasing as quickly as they have been?

LAZARUS: We’re a new entry into the marketplace. We’ve probably been part of the fuel here. It’s important for us to build sports as a part of the NBC Universal portfolio here. We can grow this. There’s plenty of opportunity for us, as long as we continue to improve all of our products to be a powerful engine for this company and partners, both leagues and distributors and marketers.

Let’s talk about NBC’s other sports networks. How has the merger with NBC benefited Golf Channel?

LAZARUS: From marketing, promotion and branding, the peacock gave Golf Channel some good sports credibility. Golf Channel gave NBC further credibility in the endemic golf world. It has led to good ratings on NBC and it has led to record ratings on Golf Channel. As importantly, we started to get more credibility in the golf community. … We have credibility in the golf community in a way that we didn’t necessarily in the past, when we were a nice channel that golfers and golf fans looked at. Now they look at us as the definitive network of record for everything golf.

There’s been some talk that you may change the names of your RSNs to use the NBC brand. Where do you stand on that?

LAZARUS: Our plan is to not change the name in the short-term. We think there’s value for Comcast and for our company to keep the Comcast SportsNet name. For the most part, they’re all in Comcast territories. That has a value to the Comcast customers.

Will the RSNs see any changes?

LAZARUS: We’ve done a lot on the digital side of the RSNs and rolling them up into On air, you’ll start to see more of NBC production, technique and graphics. It will be sort of a production takeover.