Comcast/Versus To Challenge ESPN Empire NOW?

SPORTS BUSINESS DAILY had some very interesting sports cable TV rating numbers today - for 2008:

Versus TV Ratings

SBD:

For ‘08, Versus saw the biggest viewership gains among cable sports nets for both total day programming and primetime, up 20.2% and 23.6%, respectively, from a year ago. Speed also saw double-digit growth in ‘08, as the net had a successful season of NASCAR Camping World Truck Series telecasts. Among the ESPN-branded nets, only ESPN saw gains in ‘08, up in both total day and primetime.

Yeah, ESPN still has over seven times the viewership of Comcast-owned Versus, but those numbers may be a prelude to something much bigger. Comcast may, once again, be eyeing getting serious in an attempt to slay the ESPN dragon. Or at least put out an eye - or break off a nail or two.

Since Fox’s failed bid in the ’90s to challenge ESPN’s sports programming dominance, the WWL has grown into a gargantuan money-printing machine for Disney. ESPN now sucks up by far the most sports-related ad dollars of any single sports media company. So it stands to reason that a company with vast resources, like Comcast, would be interested in trying to barge its way into the oft-lucrative sports play-by-play business.

Of course, Versus is only a tiny baby step towards doing that. Acquistion of the NHL was more symbolic. An initial, but small, volley fired in Bristol’s direction.

To get serious, Comcast would have to build out its broadcast capabilities dramatically, pony up Billions in broadcast rights fees and establish a serious presence on the web. That’s all something that will take time. But with the economy likely to go sideways in 2009, this might just be that time.

If you think this is a pipe dream, you weren’t paying attention three years ago, when Comcast made serious overtures about challenge ESPN’s industry dominance.

The WALL STREET JOURNAL reported in 2005 that “Comcast Corp., the nation’s largest cable operator, may be weighing a sports network to challenge the leadership of ESPN, according to a published report.

More:

Comcast may try to turn its niche Outdoor Life Network into a more broad-based sports network. At first it would need to land rights to broadcast games from the National Hockey League and National Football League to give it the sports programming it needs to attract viewers and greater cable distribution.

The NFL has recently signed broadcast rights deals with ESPN that run through 2013 and three broadcast networks that run through 2011 to carry most of its games. But the NFL will offer Thursday and Saturday night games late in the season starting in the 2006 season.

Comcast is in talks to broadcast those Thursday and Saturday games, according to the report, for as much as $400 million a year. The Journal reported that in one scenario under discussion, Comcast would give the NFL an equity stake in the rebranded sports channel.

Comcast bid for ESPN owner Walt Disney in early 2004, partly attracted by Disney’s profitable cable networks, led by the ESPN brand. Broadcasting NFL Sunday night games starting in 1987 was a key to building the ESPN franchise, and in 2006 the cable network will start broadcasting “Monday Night Football,” which had long been a staple of Disney-owned broadcast network ABC.

You read that right. Comcast tried to buy Disney in 2004, acquiring ESPN along with it. And since then, ESPN has been Disney’s most profitable unit.

Unlike the declining NFL Network, Comcast operates a vast amount of cable systems itself, so significant early cable clearance for an all-sports challenger to ESPN wouldn’t be as difficult, at least initially, as you might think. And if Comcast was to acquire the rights to major league play-by-play (NBA, NASCAR, anyone?), you can bet there would be plenty of pressure for competitor cable outfits to pick up Comcast’s sports channel.

And despite damaged relations with the NFL over carriage issues, I still believe Comcast could still land PBP rights to league games (Thursday nights?) if it was willing to overpay.

With a slow 2009 on the horizon, Comcast might be looking to build up its sports operation under the cover of darkness. Then break it thereafter with massive bids on major league-caliber sports broadcast rights. Or perhaps there would be no move until Comcast was able to anchor a channel with a massive major league broadcast rights acquistion. Could happen either way.

Another factor is web. Versus has an underwhelming presence on the internet and isn’t recognized in sports blogosphere. Meanwhile, ESPN has largely ignored the countless millions who read highly-trafficked sports blogs. By embracing the blogs, Versus’ website and programming could gain traction almost instantly.

Regardless, a Comcast challenge to ESPN would be a huge boon to sports fans. Thanks to the blogs, we’ve already seen what competition from the web has done to improve and adjust ESPN’s sometimes insufferably arrogant reporting procedures. Now throw in another well-funded (read loss leader) legitimate sports channel, which embraces all things web, and all hell could break loose.

Terrell Owens chugging down popcorn

If that happens, somebody get T.O. on the phone. I’m gonna need some popcorn.