Versus will televise Big 12 and Pac-10 football games as part of a new agreement with FSN, a rehash of FSN’s prior deal with TBS. I’d be more impressed if FSN hadn’t already let Pac-10 games go to ESPN and made another agreement with ESPN for Big 12 games.
This is great news for Versus and terrible news for fans of those conferences who have longed for them to get off FSN. TBS to Versus is a big step down. On the other hand, while Versus isn’t likely to get The Game That Will Determine The National Championship (between ABC and FSN), this is exactly what Versus needs to do to establish its bona fides as a major sports power before the Big Three contracts come up for renewal again in the mid-2010’s. Versus’ limited distribution and the fact that it counted on major sports to establish its reputation, instead of making sure they had one going in, helped kill their shots at NFL and MLB rights (though Versus’ best shot at the mighty NFL, especially considering their distribution, was probably always the package the NFL relegated to the NFL Network for reasons not concerning the individual drawbacks of any network).
Getting the sort of sports that characterized the early days of ESPN and ESPN2 is also a must. Versus has already gotten a head start on that with NLL and MISL coverage, and dipped its toe into Arena Football coverage last season. Jumping into more mid-major sports, like MLS and the WNBA, would seem to be a logical next step, but MLS and AFL rights are locked up into the next decade, and WNBA (and NBA) rights are pretty much too far into negotiations at this point, with the pens practically already sitting by the contract.
The Big 12 has already re-upped with ABC and FSN, a deal that starts in 2008. Versus might be able to interject itself in SEC negotiations, which are up for renegotiation soon for a new deal starting 2009. Both football and basketball are shown on CBS and ESPN, but ESPN’s coverage of the SEC is rather limited, with lesser games (including the basketball semifinals, a bit of notoriety shared by no other Big Six conference) relegated to regional syndication.
Versus probably overestimated the cache of the NHL today in trying to line up deals for better sports. Now they have to hope that even mid-level Big 12 and Pac-10 games will draw enough eyeballs to stop itself from being a joke for any league over the NHL line. I can’t exactly say the battle of Iowa is a good sign of what’s to come, but at least now they might edge just a little bit higher.