By the Editors
Can you name the largest “investor” in American bike racing? Hint: It’s the folks who deliver cycling fans’ “must see TV” on Thursday nights. That’s right, Outdoor Life Network. In 2001, VeloNews estimates that the sports cable television broadcaster will invest approximately $7 million in broadcasting, marketing, and promoting major bicycle events such as the Tour de France, Sea Otter Classic, Giro d’Italia and the NORBA NCS Series.
Since its founding in 1995, OLN has made a steadily increasing commitment to bike racing. It’s spending $3 million for rights fees alone for the Tour de France, and it was the original sponsor and major glue behind the Mercury Cycling Team. It is part owner of the nation’s largest participant race, the Sea Otter Classic, and in a time of need, it stepped in to help rescue the NORBA NCS Series.
Not only does OLN broadcast more bike racing than all the other TV and cable networks in the United States combined, but the 192 hours it is dedicating to the 2001 Tour de France ranks the U.S. as the No. 2 country behind France in broadcast hours for the Tour. OLN’s quest to brand the network as the cycling channel was helped by ESPN’s move toward ball and motor sports, and an increasing marginalization of cycling programming. All OLN programming and production boss Peter Englehart had to do was put it in prime time – Thursdays no less – and we were hooked.
Some 26 million households later, OLN has emerged as essentially the only game in town. That doesn’t sit well with some cycling insiders, who think OLN has too much of a monopoly on U.S. cycling, and not enough “reach” (or number of households) compared to the 100-million-plus households of ESPN or the major networks.
Englehart hears the criticism, and explains, “Let’s not forget cycling is still a niche sport in the U.S., and that availability in 26 million households in prime time is pretty good for a niche sport. Nonetheless, for the Tour de France, we’re producing programs for Fox Sports Network and CBS featuring the Tour, so our GRPs (gross rating points) will vastly exceed what’s been seen before in the U.S.”
Despite its large stake in the sport, OLN has been slow to throw around its political weight. Some feel that OLN could have helped accelerate the long-overdue restructuring now happening at USA Cycling. And that it should have gone to war with the UCI over its intransigence to release broadcast rights to some of its marquee properties, essentially depriving U.S. audiences of many top-tier World Cup events.
Explains Englehart: “We were the new kids on the block and felt we had to earn our stripes first. Even now, we will not throw our weight around. Our goal is to help grow U.S. cycling positively because we have such a big investment in its success.”
Our holiday wish for American bicycle racing is for more “investors” of OLN’s quality.