The network will carry the Tour of California starting on Valentine's Day and running for more than a week--the second race in Armstrong's much-hyped comeback. "He's committed to that," Versus President Jamie Davis said.
While interest is sure to increase there, if Armstrong opts to return to the Tour de France in July, it could be unexpectedly transformative for Versus. Higher ratings and ad sales are all but certain; the network carries the esteemed race live daily.
"Lance will bring in the casual fan," Davis said Thursday, following an industry event.
Nonetheless, Davis said the possibility of "Lance coming back is an upside." The reason is that Comcast-owned Versus inked a deal in June to continue carrying the Tour de France through 2013--with no reason to believe that Armstrong would make a comeback.
Armstrong is making a cycling return after retiring three years ago following his seventh Tour win. But he has vacillated on whether his comeback will include the Tour next summer. He has suggested that some in France who believe he used performance-enhancing drugs might let their anger boil over and threaten his safety.
Versus re-upped with the Tour for six more years in June. Then three months later, it got wind of the tantalizing proposition that the 37-year-old Armstrong could highlight its 2009 Tour coverage.
Before the Armstrong hubbub, Versus' Davis said the network opted to continue with the Tour because it had faith that the race would continue to draw viewers for years to come. The Tour, which has been on Versus since 2001, also plays a significant role in the network's brand ID.
Versus' decision to stick with the Tour well into the next decade came despite suggestions that the sport of cycling has seen its appeal diminish due to frequent doping scandals and allegations. But last summer, Versus said total household reach for the Tour was 22 million--higher than the 20.4 million in 2005, Armstrong's last year.
Armstrong begins his comeback in January at the Tour Down Under in Australia. Rights to carry that race are up for bid, and Versus could acquire them.
A representative from the Australian rights holder said in an e-mail that the group has offers from Versus; NBC Universal's multicast network Universal Sports; and ESPN, which would air it on its ESPN360.com broadband site.
Armstrong's second return race is the Tour of California on Versus a month later, followed by Giro d'Italia in May. Davis said Versus may also bid for the Italian contest. (The network carried a portion of it last year on a same-day delayed basis.)
The Giro is considered one of cycling's big three races, along with the Tour de France and a Spanish race. Armstrong has never raced in the Giro before.
Armstrong is expected to meet with Tour de France organizers before deciding whether to join the event that takes place two months after the Giro.