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If there were another sports channel …

Published 10:38am Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Column: Pothole Prairie

The growing genres on television over the past 10 years are sports and reality shows, according to the Nielsen ratings. The declining genres are drama and comedy. And with a recent story in the New York Times about how NBC likely will make a profit off the Olympics this year, it got me excited about something I’ve always wanted to see on television.

There are cable sports channels dedicated to mainstream sports — ESPN, Fox Sports, NBC, CBS and all their sister channels across the cable lineup — and they all air hours upon hours dedicated to the same sports: pro football, college football, pro basketball, college basketball, pro baseball, pro hockey, college hockey, pro golf, pro tennis, pro soccer and pro auto racing.

But why not have a channel or two dedicated to the wide world of sports? Surprisingly, there are such channels.

The World Championship Channel launched in 2006 to show Olympic sports like track and field. Eventually, it became part of NBC Universal and now is called the Universal Channel. It still shows Olympic sports when the Olympics aren’t happening. Want to watch the Boston Marathon? It’s on this channel. Want to see Lindsey Vonn ski? It’s the place. In Albert Lea, it’s on satellite, not cable. Some events can be seen live on the web.

There are several hook-and-bullet channels out there on satellite and, in some places, even over the airwaves on digital subchannels: Outdoor Channel, The Sportsman Channel and Pursuit Channel. Fishing also has the World Fishing Network.

So my question really is this: Why aren’t there sports channels on cable that don’t show the same old mainstream sports?

The ratings boom for sports and reality shows reveals that audiences want live television. Audiences these days know that scripted television can be seen at a later time — reruns, DVD sales, on-demand, Netflix. You would think cable companies would shed these channels dedicated to scripted stuff and add sports channels in their place.

Sure, now and then other sports find their way to mainstream sports channels. Who hasn’t caught bowling, motocross, rodeo or volleyball on an ESPN channel sometime? I’ve seen the Drake Relays in Des Moines, Iowa, on network television. America’s Cup yachting will be on NBC next month. In the winter, there is a good amount of figure skating and downhill skiing on the tube. Soccer definitely has risen in airtime. Women’s gymnastics sometimes makes it on TV.

But I have to catch them. On cable in Albert Lea, I cannot just flip to a channel and see some other sports. This fall, it’s going to be wall-to-wall football, and I will get tired of it.

I’m a disc golfer, so of course my true wish is to be able to flip on the TV set and see professionals throwing discs toward a target. The sport indeed has an Internet channel that airs live broadcasts of top-level disc golf tournaments. But that’s not the same as seeing it on the big TV screen. And disc golfers generally don’t have great purchasing power — they play because it is pretty much free — so I don’t expect advertisers to line up. However, the players are young, and advertisers like young audiences. Who knows?

Either way, because I play a growing sport, it makes me appreciate all non-mainstream sports. I love the Olympics because so many of these sports deserve a spotlight every year, not just every four years.

Our hook-and-bullet friends once had their own channel called the Outdoor Life Network. It started in 1995 and was dedicated to fishing, hunting and outdoor adventures.

The channel took a risk and bought broadcast rights to the Tour de France in 1999. Lance Armstrong’s subsequent success brought great ratings. Before that, Americans couldn’t watch the Tour de France on TV. We would see segments and highlights, but not the whole thing live.

The Tour de France’s success is a good example of developing an audience. Football didn’t start off as more popular than baseball, but the audience grew thanks in part to how well TV covered it, not merely from how football’s action was more TV-friendly than baseball. Explain a sport well, show it well, tell the stories of the athletes and an audience will grow.

The Outdoor Life Channel eventually went after hockey and by 2006 re-fashioned itself as a mainstream sports channel to compete with ESPN. It changed its name to Versus and began carrying college football games. However, it still developed audiences for some out-of-the-way sports, most notably mixed-martial arts. Fox nowadays broadcasts UFC fights. In fact, on Saturday night, UFC came in second in the Nielsen ratings behind the Olympics.

Last year, with Comcast buying a majority stake in NBC Universal, Versus became NBC Sports Network. It still carries live start-to-finish coverage of the Tour de France. It is home to hockey for many NHL fans, and it carries many Major League Soccer games, in addition to typical things like college football and basketball.

To me, Universal and any other non-mainstream sports channel have to establish and maintain reputations as a place to go for non-mainstream-sports programming. They ought not drift toward becoming mainstream sports channels if they want viewers to think of them as the places to watch those sports.

 

Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.