NBC Sports, WCSN Marriage Gives Olympic Fans Single Destination Year Round

By Carolyn Braff

With the Opening Ceremonies of this summer’s Olympic Games just 51 days away, NBC’s extensive coverage plans should have its production team more than occupied, but NBC Universal’s latest announcement shows the company is already looking beyond Beijing. NBC Sports and World Championship Sports Network (WCSN) have joined forces to create Universal Sports, a multi-platform destination that will complement NBC’s television and digital offerings throughout the Games and, more importantly, after the lights dim on Closing Ceremonies in China.

“It’s always been in our interest to find a way to connect with our Olympic audience outside of the Games,” explains Perkins Miller, senior vice president of digital media for NBC Universal Sports & Olympics. “WCSN had done a great job of acquiring rights and has some great leadership in this business, so it made a lot of sense to partner with them.”

The WCSN management team, including Chairman and CEO Claude Ruibal and President and COO Carlos Silva, will continue to lead the new company, which will be rebranded as Universal Sports effective immediately.

The new platform has an enviable rundown of broadcast rights, including one-year rights to the 2008 Games, international rights to events like the FINA World Championships and domestic rights to the U.S. Olympic Trials, which will serve as the network’s debut presentation. Early rounds of the gymnastics trials, which had no previous platform for viewership, will air on the rebranded network beginning this Thursday, June 19, in the roughly 2 million homes in which WCSN currently has distribution.

“With the Trials, the first steps are to get the right content up and get the message out to the right audiences,” Miller says. “As you do the rights things with content and marketing, we’ll start to roll out and increase our distribution.”

Thursday’s broadcasts will have the look of the rebranded network – “We will literally be evolving on an hour-by-hour basis,” Ruibal says – but who will produce the content for Universal Sports is still a matter for discussion.

“Most of our television is produced by a third party host broadcaster, but in the case of the Olympic Trials, we’re relying on NBC’s production,” Ruibal says. “As we look to other events, we’ll look to NBC for guidance. We’ve already worked with a few of their producers and directors and they’re also looking to let our team be somewhat independent.”

For NBC, which has emphasized its ambitious multi-platform coverage of the Beijing Games, WCSN’s multi-platform credo created a perfect partnership opportunity.

“We’ve streamed some events for them that they really didn’t have a place to put, when they had rights they couldn’t exploit,” Silva explains. “I think they had a shared vision of being multiplatform and we have that built into our DNA.”

As the Beijing Games approached, NBC began actively pursuing a partnership, giving WCSN the chance to prove its prowess in the Olympic space.

“I think they were testing us a bit with some events they let us distribute,” Ruibal says, “the Curling World Championships, for one. As we started to deliver, I think they saw some value around our thinking that there was a need to let consumers access these sports in between the Games, and to take it beyond their 16 days every two years.”

Indeed, Miller explains, NBC now envisions Universal Sports acting as a complement to the network’s Olympic coverage 365 days a year, starting with the Universal Sports.com website. The site, set to launch in July, will be run in conjunction with JumpTV, as WCSN’s relaunched site was scheduled to do.

“We’re going to stay the course with Jump,” Silva explains. “NBC thinks it’s a good partnership and there’s a way that all of us will work together.”

That partnership will also incorporate NBC’s own Olympic portal, NBC Olympics.com.

“NBC Olympics.com is an event-based website,” Miller explains. “It’s really designed to capture your imagination and thrill you during the 17 days of the Games. Where we’ve struggled is the 18th day of the Games, and that’s where Universal Sports.com acts as a channel to help you get more deeply connected with these Olympic sports and athletes.”

Although this week’s Olympic Trials will certainly give fans a taste of Universal Sports, the real flavor of the network may not emerge for another 51 days, when the Opening Ceremonies commence.

“You’ll see the biggest engine really start to light up during the Olympics,” Miller says. “In following the Olympics, we’ll talk to talk to our users about the role Universal Sports will play, whether it’s covering the triathlon in track and field, or how important the upcoming alpine World Cup schedule is as we look ahead towards Vancouver 2010.”