â†µVersus is not a serious rival to ESPN in any sense save one: they have â†µmanaged to scope out a demographic ESPN used to dominate, the all- â†µimportant "things you didn't know you'd actually watch on tv, but here â†µyou are watching bull-riding, cycling, off-market MMA, and even that â†µlate Pac-10 game after all the other college football peters out on â†µthe WWL. This is something ESPN used to do quite well with things like â†µthe World's Strongest Man Competition, the Great Outdoor Games and even the â†µoriginal World Series of Poker. You know, back when it was at â†µBinion's, and some of the players looked like they'd just been let out â†µof the Clark County drunk tank. â†µâ†µ
â†µThat ESPN, the ESPN of your late-night boredom, is now slowly â†µmigrating over to Versus bit by bit thanks to ESPN's maximalist â†µtendencies. Pressed to develop "personalities" through shows like â†µAround the Horn and to deliver full overkill on their big â†µevents (see the luxurious pre-game shows for both college and â†µprofessional football), the schedule once full of blank holes filled â†µby ridiculous things like the WSM are now not only filled on the â†µWorldwide Leader, but on ESPN2 as well. As odd as this may sound, part of â†µthe charm of vintage ESPN were these half-assed but charming gaps in â†µthe schedule, often filled with arcane filler like poker that became â†µpremier entertainment in its own right. Good for them: ESPN did a â†µfine job growing it into the beast it is today, and nourishes it well. â†µâ†µ
â†µThe hunger for the new has not faded, though, and what the new â†µrequires is empty space. See Versus, which has ample room on their â†µschedule to let bizarre, interesting new programming â†µsucceed or fail. (To wit: they have the Versus Whitetail Challenge on â†µfor something like four hours today. I know there's a deer â†µoverpopulation problem, but at this rate Versus will solve it â†µsingle-handedly.) If Versus recognizes the gap in the wall ESPN has â†µbuilt around professional sport, it's in the field of up and coming â†µsports, no matter how strange the sport might seem. ESPN is largely â†µout of the original sport content creation business, and this is where â†µVersus comes in. Living with an apex predator like ESPN, the rationale â†µis simple: they can only eat so much content at a time, and really no â†µlonger create it. Versus literally has to outbreed the Worldwide â†µLeader by offering what ESPN can no longer squeeze in, and do it fast â†µenough to continue carving out their own little patch in a crowded â†µlandscape. â†µâ†µ
â†µThey can't overtake ESPN, at least not this generation. They can, â†µhowever, be something ESPN can't be: focused. Stuck with a zillion â†µnetworks and an extremely corporate management style (read: ponderous â†µand slow), ESPN can't experiment with the speed or freedom Versus can. â†µVersus has one shop, and they're tiny but free to play around. In â†µfact, they should: innovation is their only hope to stay competitive, â†µsince most of the major sports are already tied up with contracts and â†µrelationships with others. You didn't think you'd be watching poker on â†µtelevision 15 years ago, but here you are. If Versus is successful, â†µyou'll be saying the same thing about something they find and build â†µfrom nothing 10 years down the road. In my dreams, we'll all be â†µwatching boat-trailer racing on Versus in this scenario, but that's â†µjust me. â†µâ†µ
This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.