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How Versus Usurped The All-Important Bored Demographic

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A small victory for Versus, the upstart sports network cleverly ↵elbowing out a small but intriguing patch of lebensraum in a ↵broadcast world dominated by ESPN's family of networks. (And by ↵family, we mean like the Corleones or Tattaglias, not the Tanners or ↵the Huxtables.) Versus had a 41% jump in the ratings for the Tour de France this year ↵compared to last year and experienced good numbers in their ↵online stream, something brought to you by your boss having other ↵things to do and not noticing the one or two cycling nuts in the ↵office glued to the live feed in the early morning hours. ↵

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↵Versus is not a serious rival to ESPN in any sense save one: they have ↵managed to scope out a demographic ESPN used to dominate, the all- ↵important "things you didn't know you'd actually watch on tv, but here ↵you are watching bull-riding, cycling, off-market MMA, and even that ↵late Pac-10 game after all the other college football peters out on ↵the WWL. This is something ESPN used to do quite well with things like ↵the World's Strongest Man Competition, the Great Outdoor Games and even the ↵original World Series of Poker. You know, back when it was at ↵Binion's, and some of the players looked like they'd just been let out ↵of the Clark County drunk tank. ↵

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↵That ESPN, the ESPN of your late-night boredom, is now slowly ↵migrating over to Versus bit by bit thanks to ESPN's maximalist ↵tendencies. Pressed to develop "personalities" through shows like ↵Around the Horn and to deliver full overkill on their big ↵events (see the luxurious pre-game shows for both college and ↵professional football), the schedule once full of blank holes filled ↵by ridiculous things like the WSM are now not only filled on the ↵Worldwide Leader, but on ESPN2 as well. As odd as this may sound, part of ↵the charm of vintage ESPN were these half-assed but charming gaps in ↵the schedule, often filled with arcane filler like poker that became ↵premier entertainment in its own right. Good for them: ESPN did a ↵fine job growing it into the beast it is today, and nourishes it well. ↵

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↵The hunger for the new has not faded, though, and what the new ↵requires is empty space. See Versus, which has ample room on their ↵schedule to let bizarre, interesting new programming ↵succeed or fail. (To wit: they have the Versus Whitetail Challenge on ↵for something like four hours today. I know there's a deer ↵overpopulation problem, but at this rate Versus will solve it ↵single-handedly.) If Versus recognizes the gap in the wall ESPN has ↵built around professional sport, it's in the field of up and coming ↵sports, no matter how strange the sport might seem. ESPN is largely ↵out of the original sport content creation business, and this is where ↵Versus comes in. Living with an apex predator like ESPN, the rationale ↵is simple: they can only eat so much content at a time, and really no ↵longer create it. Versus literally has to outbreed the Worldwide ↵Leader by offering what ESPN can no longer squeeze in, and do it fast ↵enough to continue carving out their own little patch in a crowded ↵landscape. ↵

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↵They can't overtake ESPN, at least not this generation. They can, ↵however, be something ESPN can't be: focused. Stuck with a zillion ↵networks and an extremely corporate management style (read: ponderous ↵and slow), ESPN can't experiment with the speed or freedom Versus can. ↵Versus has one shop, and they're tiny but free to play around. In ↵fact, they should: innovation is their only hope to stay competitive, ↵since most of the major sports are already tied up with contracts and ↵relationships with others. You didn't think you'd be watching poker on ↵television 15 years ago, but here you are. If Versus is successful, ↵you'll be saying the same thing about something they find and build ↵from nothing 10 years down the road. In my dreams, we'll all be ↵watching boat-trailer racing on Versus in this scenario, but that's ↵just me. ↵

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.