It was a noble concept. Create a network that airs Olympic sports year-round and make it a destination for fans who want to watch the niche sports that don’t get wide-spread attention in non-Olympic years. World Championship Sports Network was created in 2006 with exactly that in mind, first as an online channel, then as a broadcast subchannel in 2007.
NBC then came on board purchasing a minority stake in the channel from majority owner InterMedia, rebranding it to Universal Sports and lending the famous peacock logo to the network. It increased its haul with the Olympic sports federations picking up world championships in alpine skiing, cycling, figure skating, gymnastics, swimming and track & field. It also gained the rights to the Boston Marathon. NBC carried Universal Sports as a digital subchannel for its owned-and-operated stations which included several major markets.
And it brought viewers an opportunity to watch events live or at least same day coverage of the world class athletes who would be seen during the Olympics. Lindsey Vonn, Usain Bolt, Tyson Gay, Mikaela Shiffrin, Simone Biles, Allyson Felix and others all had regular exposure on the channel.
In 2011, DirecTV picked up Universal and placed it on its sports tier. It then led Universal Sports to become a full-fledged cable and satellite channel. But it couldn’t get off lower-viewed sports tiers and when Comcast dropped the network, Universal struggled to find providers. In addition, some providers like DirecTV would carry only the standard definition feed severely handicapping viewership.
For many of its events, Universal Sports had its announcers call them off a monitor from its base in California while for others, it depended on NBC Sports for production and talent. The partnership was in place for this year’s skiing and swimming world championships, but for other world championships, Universal Sports used the world feed and its announcers.
When the Olympics came, NBC never used it for live events, allowing it to produce shoulder programming, but for an Olympic sports channel not to be involved in live events during that period also handcuffed Universal Sports.
Last month, it was revealed that Universal Sports would be shutting down, thus issuing the death knell for the network. Despite a year which saw Universal carry world championships in alpine skiing, cycling, figure skating, gymnastics, rugby, swimming and track & field along with some of the world’s most famous marathons in Amsterdam, Boston, Chicago, London, Paris and Tokyo, it wasn’t enough for the owners to keep it going, and on November 16, the signal went off the air at 6 p.m. ET.
It now means that NBC will take over the rights that Universal Sports had. A majority of events will aired on Universal HD (channel 569 on DirecTV and channel 366 on Dish) which will be confusing at first, but the network is on more cable and satellite providers than Universal Sports ever was so that will make them available to a wider audience. NBCSN will air a handful of events while others will be exclusively online on the NBC Sports Live Extra app. NBC has provided a full viewing listing for the former Universal Sports winter sports calendar at its website.
With NBC taking over the rights for the Universal Sports portfolio, it could lead to these events going to an over the top Olympic Network which is a top priority of the International Olympic Committee and could launch sometime next year. IOC partners NBC, CBC and Eurosport are to be producers for the content when the channel comes to fruition.
But for Universal Sports, it was an effort to bring Olympic Sports to the masses. Unfortunately, distribution was a problem and it never could gain traction with viewers. Maybe with events now available on NBC’s networks, they could find the elusive viewership that Universal Sports could not and perhaps lay the groundwork for the Olympic Network when it finally launches. The next twelve months could see a very different landscape for Olympic sports viewing.