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With NBC, Comcast Zeros in on ESPN

For years, competitors have tried to challenge ESPN. Their efforts failed or never advanced beyond big talk.

Comcast’s impending acquisition of NBC Universal will certainly set off an effort to turn Versus into a viable alternative, if not a full-fledged competitor, to ESPN. Under Comcast’s ownership, Versus has transformed from the Outdoor Life Network to OLN, then, in 2006, into its current incarnation.

But Versus is a second-tier network whose highest-profile sports, the N.H.L. and the Tour de France, aren’t blockbusters. It lacks a studio show that would give it identity, like ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” or an announcer who is its defining personality.

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Versus (and its sister network, the Golf Channel) will be turned over to NBC for an overhaul, assuming regulators approve the deal, a process that could take 12 to 18 months. Versus will probably be renamed something like NBC Sports Cable to reflect a more defined sports brand. On-air and production talent would migrate from NBC, to a certain extent, although Bob Costas would not be hosting IndyCar races.

Versus and Golf would certainly be overseen by Dick Ebersol, the chairman of NBC Universal Sports, who has never had a sports cable network to tinker with (the expanding Universal Sports channel is distributed through NBC stations and affiliates); he would no doubt quickly strip Versus of its current crop of late-night infomercials.

But beefing up Versus’ quality and appearance is a small part of getting part of ESPN’s business. Comcast would have to decide to spend what is necessary to lure viewers from ESPN and ESPN2 by acquiring bigger events, like the Olympics, Major League Baseball, the N.F.L., Nascar and the N.B.A. — properties on a tier above its current rights to IndyCar, the Professional Bull Riders, Mountain West Conference football and mixed martial arts.

Versus needs big acquisitions to become something more than a default network for sports that ESPN doesn’t want (although it doesn’t need the huge bulk of hundreds upon hundreds of college games).

Executives at Comcast and NBC declined requests for comment.

A real competitor to ESPN — with its epic power, multitude of platforms and billions of dollars in revenue — does not truly exist. Yes, there are sports on other networks, like Fox, CBS and NBC, or on TNT or TBS, and one-sport channels like the MLB Network and NBA TV. But ESPN has spent enough to get the N.B.A. from NBC and the Bowl Championship Series games from Fox. It had Nascar rights, lost them, then got them back.

And ESPN could wrest the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament from CBS.

It’s all about building huge audiences. ESPN and ESPN2 have close to 100 million subscribers, ESPNews has 70.1 million and ESPNU has 64 million. It is no wonder that no real or hypothesized competitor — from Mizlou to Fox and CNN/SI, as well as an AOL Time Warner-N.B.A. venture — has succeeded.

But Comcast is a potentate, too, with more subscribers than any other cable or satellite provider. It knows all about the sea of revenue you can get from subscribers and advertisers. It has 10 regional sports networks.

So, if Comcast is serious financially and qualitatively, it and NBC could turn Versus into a credible rival. It could turn Versus into a network that would provide cable operators (like Comcast) leverage in negotiations with ESPN.

It might also make leagues giddy, knowing they could potentially juggle large-scale bids from Versus.

“You can see that the leagues must be concerned about the next round of negotiations,” said Randy Falco, the former president of the NBC Universal Television Group. “They’re asking, ‘Where’s the money coming from?’ Less and less over the next 10 years will it come from the broadcast networks, so they’re looking for an alternative.”

Given the time it will take to receive regulatory approval, the next round of Olympic bidding (for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, and the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro) will be handled sometime next year by General Electric , NBC’s parent company. But Comcast would surely have to agree, before a takeover, to G.E.’s bid.

Comcast does not need the Olympics to rationalize its NBC purchase, or to defeat ESPN, which has never carried the Olympics.

But buying the rights would be a significant gesture of support for one of the last anchors of high ratings at fourth-place NBC. Falco, a former key member of NBC’s Olympic team, said that whether Comcast spends what is necessary to outbid ESPN is not a certainty. “Depending on what they find in due diligence, I don’t think Comcast will say, ‘If we’re not a player in the Olympics, we’re in trouble,’ ” he said.

Still, Falco said, if Ebersol and his Olympic team make a strong case to Comcast about the Olympics, having them would benefit Versus starting in 2014 and the Golf Channel in 2016, when golf will be played in the Rio Games.

Challenging ESPN will not be easy. But once upon a time, CNN had the cable news world to itself.

E-mail: sandor@nytimes.com

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