Game On!

The Upstart

OLN, the cable sports channel known until last summer as Outdoor Life Network. For most of its 10 years, OLN has catered to participants in an esoteric variety of sports from motocross to hunting and fishing–a “base of hard-core outdoor enthusiasts who were very specifically into one particular type of pursuit,” says president Gavin Harvey. That mix yielded a respectable 64 million subscribers, but a typical viewer rating of just 0.1. (At ESPN, a Sunday night football broadcast can draw a 6.5 rating.)

The Power Play

Last summer’s round-the-clock coverage of the Tour de France (Allez, Lance, allez!) marked the first step in OLN’s attempt to win fans who don’t necessarily do sports. Hence, the focus on strategy and riders’ stories instead of the benefits of carbon-fiber bike frames. But what really grabbed attention was OLN’s acquisition of National Hockey League rights for $135 million. While Harvey calls the deal his “crowning achievement of 2005,” he says it’s only part of a revamped programming package.

The Challenge

OLN’s prime-time offerings–Survivor reruns, shark fishing, professional bull riding, and a reality show in which ex-rocker Ted Nugent brings city slickers into the wild–can seem a bit scattershot. But they’re popular: Even before the hockey season started, third-quarter ratings of .24 and an average of 205,655 viewers represented a more than 41% increase from the year before.

The X-factor

OLN’s parent, Comcast Corp., has the deep pockets to build a property that can attract ads and subscriber fees. OLN hasn’t tipped its hand, but outsiders expect it to look seriously at upcoming contracts to broadcast another big-time sport.FCS