"The nice thing with Lance [Armstrong] -- people know he's coming," says Marc Fein, executive vice president of programming, production and business operations for Versus, formerly Outdoor Life Network. "The buzz is out there, which is good for us."
Versus will continue with its series of on-air promotional spots -- started earlier this season -- touting Armstrong's return. In addition, Versus says it will do a media buy in Bicycling magazine.
General Mills will sponsor a series of "Lance Moments" throughout the race for its Nature Valley Granola Bar.
More broadly, advertising/marketing efforts will include Nike doing a "Chalk Bot" promotion, where TV viewers can Twitter messages they want to see written on the roads of the Tour de France.
Historically, cycling fans customarily write messages and cyclists' names in chalk on the roads, messages that are seen by race video cameras on helicopters and motorcycles. As part of the promotion, Nike will have a special robot write messages on the roads.
Other big advertiser deals include General Motors' Cadillac, which will sponsor a "Ride of Your Life" sweepstakes. American Honda, Hampton Inns and bicycle manufacturer Cervelo will also be major Versus/Tour advertisers.
This year, Versus will air the entire race in HD -- 250 hours of virtually wall-to-wall coverage, with two different shows, one live coverage, which airs in the mornings in the U.S., and repeats three times. Another prime-time show will run with a single additional repeat. This round, the prime-time show will be scaled back to two hours a night from the three hours of a year ago.
Specific Armstrong-related efforts include the network airing 10 consecutive one-hour shows highlighting his biggest stage performances. This will run on Friday, a day before the race begins in Monaco.
TV production-wise, Versus will have access to the bus of the U.S.-based Garmin-Slipstream team as it prepares for each daily stage race.
Last year, Versus had cameras in the Garmin team manager's car -- fortunate as its rider, Christian Vande Velde, surprisingly was in contention for most of the race. Vande Velde came in fourth place for the overall race.
Versus has been covering the Tour since 2001, airing five of the seven wins that Armstrong grabbed. The network earned some of its biggest ratings for the three-week-long cycling event, pushed by the story of Armstrong's amazing comeback from cancer. Tour viewership trended down afterward.
What about the ratings this time around? "Higher than last year," says Fein. He says Armstrong will help a lot, but growth in viewership from other TV sports on the network will contribute as well.
Versus notes the 2008 live morning telecasts -- its main show -- averaged a 0.3 household rating and 267,722 viewers. The network had more than 80% growth in viewership among men 18-34 against 2007's live programming.
Versus says 33 million viewers in 2008 watch some of the cycling event, a number that actually was higher than in the Armstrong years. One note: Versus has more subscribers now than in the years Armstrong was racing.
Fein says it hopes to improve its Internet activities for the Tour. Last year, Versus' Web site, versus.com, streamed 6.5 million video views -- almost double its 3.4 million views in 2007.
Versus will also promote its other sports shows in the Tour, including the World Track & Field championships in August; college football; World Extreme Cage Fighting; and its sports talk show, "Sports Soup."