CHICAGO (Reuters) - The Versus sports cable TV network is shifting into higher gear as the comeback of seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong pulls in more U.S. viewers for the noted bicycle road race.
The strong numbers for the Comcast Corp-owned network's early Tour coverage are a sign of the sports broadcaster's momentum as it looks to add content, broaden its reach and boost advertising revenue, network president Jamie Davis said.
"In 2008, we were the fastest growing of the national sports cable networks. We've had that momentum continue in the first two quarters of '09," he said in an interview.
Versus, which Comcast rebranded from OLN almost three ago, is carried in 75.1 million U.S. households, compared with 98.1 million by Walt Disney Co's ESPN, according to Nielsen.
While Davis said there will be future opportunities to add sports to a lineup that includes the National Hockey League, IndyCar racing, college football, pro bull riding, and mixed martial arts and boxing matches, the near-term focus will be on adding original programing on TV as well as content online.
The Tour, thanks to Armstrong's return from retirement, has certainly turbocharged results.
Through the first nine days of the Tour, Versus viewer numbers are up 83 percent from last year, as well as 18 percent from 2005 when Armstrong last raced. In addition, traffic on Versus.com has soared 131 percent and the website has generated 6 million video views compared with 6.5 million for the entire race last year.
Versus has aired the Tour in the United States for nine years and is in the first year of a five-year extension that runs through 2013. Davis is positive Tour viewership on the network will eclipse last year's record of nearly 33 million.
The strong numbers continue the pace seen in the just-completed NHL season, where the network's viewership rose 20 percent and 27 percent for the regular season and playoffs, respectively.
Versus, which annually pays the NHL in the mid-$70 million range for broadcast rights, hopes to extend that deal after it expires following the 2010-2011 season.
"We're very, very happy and very interested in continuing our relationship," said Davis, who joined Versus last year.
NHL union officials have complained about the lower distribution and lack of a second channel at Versus compared with ESPN and its six domestic channels. However, analysts have pointed out that Versus was willing to pay more than ESPN, and that trickles down to the players.
Versus has grown from under 60 million households a few years ago, and Davis said as it shifts to more widely available tiers on various cable providers' networks its reach could top 80 million.
But Versus has no current plans for a second channel.
"Right now we don't have any direct plans to add another channel, but down the road, should we get to a position where we felt that we were no longer able to do what is working, we would certainly explore that," Davis said.
Most major sports broadcast rights will not be open for bidding in the next few years, he said, so Versus will focus on adding more original programs such as "Sports Soup," its humorous sports clip show, and "Fanarchy," a sports talk show featuring real fans debating topics via their webcams.
Davis said ad revenue despite the recession is up this year but declined to say by how much.
Reporting by Ben Klayman, editing by Matthew Lewis