Grabbing Giro Rights Late Serves Universal Sports Fans Better Than Ever

By Carolyn Braff

Two weeks before the cyclists crossed the start line of the 2009 Giro d’Italia, one of cycling’s grand tours, the Universal Sports network had lost the bid to broadcast the event in the U.S. Two days before the first stage, however, all that changed.

“Two weeks before the Giro, we gave the organizers our best offer, and the response was no,” says Universal Sports CEO Claude Ruibal. “When I saw that no one else had the rights, we lobbed one more last-minute offer, and they said let’s talk. There was a furious 36 hours of discussions just days before the event.”

Hours Before the Start, a Multiyear Pact

Universal Sports, formerly WCSN, was interested in brokering not just a one-year deal to broadcast the Giro but a multiple-year agreement. Even in its WCSN incarnation, the network has always had a strong broadband presence, but, with the network’s rebranding in partnership with NBC Sports, the channel now has a significant television offering — enough to convince the Giro organizers that Universal Sports is a worthy broadcast partner.

“The Giro organizers concluded that we were a platform that had matured enough on the TV side that we were a place that they felt comfortable putting their high-level, high-quality product,” Ruibal says. “We closed the deal with the rightsholder on Thursday morning and put our two-man ENG crew on a plane on Thursday at 5 p.m.”

That ENG crew, consisting of a cameraman and an audio expert, was the definition of an 11th-hour addition. By Saturday morning, the crew was in the Garmin-Slipstream team car, from which they were able to follow the first two weeks of the race.

An Extended Stay

The crew was supposed to spend just four or five days in Italy, following Lance Armstrong for as long as he stayed competitive. But, because Armstrong remained in contention, the duo remained overseas for 10 additional days to monitor his progress.

“They’ve had a great 14 days in Italy,” Ruibal says. “They provided a lot of additional pre- and post-race interviews and coverage. We’ve gotten some good footage with Lance and some good wraparound content, and it was a really nice luxury to have them there. Because of the cost structures that we have, this isn’t something that Universal Sports could traditionally do, but being new to the grand cycling tour, we thought we should have something incremental for our consumers for the beginning of the race.”

Using a unilateral feed, the ENG team sends about 30 minutes of content back to Universal Sports daily, booking time with Eurovision at the end of each day’s stage to do so. Universal Sports’ production team in California integrates that content into the daily TV coverage, built around a feed from Italian host broadcaster RAI. Coverage airs daily at noon and 9 p.m. ET on Universal Sports.

The Price-Product Balance

The ENG crew members were the only Universal Sports representatives on the ground in Italy, since the network’s announce team adds its commentary from a studio in California.

“In almost every event we’ve ever done since we started this network, our announcers have always been in our studio,” Ruibal explains. “There’s a cost issue around flying people, having them buy commentary position, and housing them there. We can get local information online about sunlight, temperature, and wind, and it’s always nice to have someone locally there by phone if we can. In trying to provide a quality product to consumers at a reasonable price, I think this is the best way to go.”

That reasonable price is now free. Last summer, Universal Sports transitioned from a subscription-based service to an ad-supported, free-to-view model for all its online coverage, so fans can watch every stage of the Giro online for free. Coverage goes live at 9 a.m. ET daily on UniversalSports.com, including an interactive dashboard with stage leaders, links to video and highlights, photos, and TV information. Video from each stage is also available on-demand for free.

Extended Coverage Experiments

Universal Sports is also piloting an online pay program, Tour Tracker, priced at $3.95 per day or $34.95 for the entire tour. The product, which was developed by Garmin Slipstream for the Tour of California, integrates commentary from Cyclingnews, a live interactive chat room, stage-profile maps, live video, and plenty of metrics, including elevations, percent grade, time, and distance to go.

“There’s a lot more the Web can offer a consumer who wants additional information, more than you can get on your television, so this is almost a pilot for us,” Ruibal says. “I’ve always been a real advocate of offering this kind of interactivity online, and I think this is a great first step. We don’t have hundreds of thousands of subscribers here, but there absolutely has been uptake and interest in it.”

Ruibal is working with his team to adapt the Tour Tracker for other sports, such as swimming and track and field, which are stats-heavy and would benefit from a similar premium online product offering.

Putting the Brand on the (Cycling) Map

Because this edition of the Giro is Universal Sports’ first foray into the grand cycling tour, Ruibal is pleased with the visibility it is bringing to his brand, but he recognizes that he has plenty of room for improvement.

“It has opened up our brand to a lot of cycling consumers who didn’t know much about us,” he says. “If I had more time and money to plan this, I would have loved to do the entire race every day and do it live, but maybe we can get there for next year.”

To watch daily video from the Giro d’Italia, log onto Universal Sports’ Giro dashboard at www.universalsports.com.