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Sports Media

At NBC, the brand plays on

Renaming Versus is the latest move

By Chad Finn
Globe Staff / August 5, 2011

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When the relatively obscure Outdoor Life Network was renamed Versus in 2006, it was difficult to imagine anyone other than Tour de France aficionados would object. The storied cycling race was such a staple of the network’s schedule - even after it acquired NHL cable broadcast rights following the 2004-05 lockout - that OLN might as well have called itself LAN (the Lance Armstrong Network).

Such reminiscences of the good OLN days were jostled by this week’s news that the network will soon undergo another name change. But that’s not to suggest there should have been raised eyebrows Monday with the announcement by NBC Sports Group chairman Mark Lazarus that Versus would be rebranded the NBC Sports Network beginning Jan. 2.

The change was considered inevitable after the Federal Communications Commission approved Comcast’s acquisition of NBC Universal in January, a deal that merged Versus and the Golf Channel with NBC Sports under the cable giant’s umbrella. Dick Ebersol had hinted at a Versus name change before his surprising resignation as the NBC Sports chief in May.

Lazarus, Ebersol’s successor, described the change as “beyond logical.’’

“It allows us to completely align the sports assets of this new combined company,’’ said Lazarus, who noted that the Golf Channel would retain its name, with NBC’s golf telecasts already being presented as “Golf Channel on NBC.’’

“It gives us the ability now to go to rights-holders and to work with rights-holders to create what we think are the most comprehensive sports offerings on those television platforms plus digital.’’

Lazarus said there is no imminent name change planned for Comcast SportsNet New England and the 10 other Comcast-owned regional sports networks, though the graphics and on-air look will evolve.

“You’ll see more and more the influence of the NBC Sports production,’’ he said. “We really believe that anything that has the NBC or Comcast Sports name on it should have a certain level of quality and production style to it. So there will be some uniformity to that.’’

The change in Versus’s name - as well as a much-ballyhooed update to the NBC Sports logo - is a meaningful tweak in an intensely competitive marketplace where billions of dollars are at stake. Consider the significant moves Comcast and NBC Sports Group have been involved with in the seven months since the merger:

■In April, the NHL and Comcast/NBC agreed to a 10-year contract extension worth $2 billion.

■In June, Comcast/NBC locked up Olympic broadcast rights through 2020 for approximately $4.4 billion.

■In July, ESPN reached a 12-year agreement for the US broadcast rights to Wimbledon, ending the tennis tournament’s 43-year association with NBC when the deal begins next year.

The competition with ESPN is particularly compelling. While other networks have built intriguing rosters of sports programming - particularly Turner Sports, with its affiliation with Major League Baseball, NASCAR, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, and the NBA - the conventional wisdom is that with the seemingly endless vault of Comcast money behind it, NBC Sports Group has the best chance of cutting into the audience of the self-proclaimed “worldwide leader in sports.’’

Lazarus said he understands that perception. He is, however, quick to point out that NBC Sports Group not only takes a different fundamental philosophy to presenting sports than ESPN, but he believes it can do it from a wider variety of mediums.

“None of our competitors have a broadcast platform, a national cable platform, and the regional platform and the digital platform, if you think it through,’’ he said. “Disney [ESPN’s parent company] has certain parts of that, Fox has certain parts of that, CBS has certain parts of that, but no one has that full complement of assets.

“And we have a very different approach to coverage and our production than our competitors do. We cover things in a way that broaden an event and sort of widen the tent of consumers and fans that come to it.’’

Although Lazarus specifically cited NBC’s Sports Group’s game plan in broadcasting Notre Dame football and the Kentucky Derby (“That’s about bringing community together, it’s about families and women and fashion and hats . . .’’), his words could have applied to Ebersol’s approach to presenting the Olympics: It’s at least as much about human interest as it is about sports.

“That’s a big part of the Olympic heritage and strategy that this company has had,’’ Lazarus acknowledged. “I haven’t been here for any of that, I’m inheriting it, but I believe in it.

“Some people look at the Olympics as sports. The Olympics is not sports. It’s part sports, but it’s got a lot more to it than the sports aspect that’s taking place on the playing field.

“Widening that tent is what makes the Olympics one of the very few things in the world that is a community and shared viewing experience.’’

With the commencement of the Summer Olympics in London less than a year away, it’s imperative from Lazarus’s perspective that the rebranding becomes familiar to viewers as soon as possible.

Jan. 2, the date of the formal switch from Versus to the NBC Sports Network, coincides with NBC’s broadcast of the enormously popular Winter Classic outdoor NHL game, which will feature the Flyers and Rangers.

There are other major events that will help call attention to the rebranding, including a “Sunday Night Football’’ game Jan. 1, an NFL wild-card doubleheader Jan. 7, and Super Bowl XLVI Feb. 5.

“We believe that having NBC Sports and the NBC Sports Network will allow us to transfer viewers more seamlessly through the Olympics,’’ Lazarus said. “And for hockey, for that matter, and everything we do together.

“As we put products and talent on both platforms, it will allow us to inextricably link the two. I’m confident folks will know where NBC Sports Network is pretty quick. I think it will be something sports fans will check every time through the dial.’’

Chad Finn can be reached at finn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globechadfinn.