WLEX creates channel to air classic UK games, prep sports

Classic University of Kentucky men's basketball and football games, as well as live high school sports, are now airing on a digital subchannel of Lexington NBC affiliate WLEX (Channel 18).

The station announced Thursday that it is partnering with online sports site Wazoo Sports to air the Wazoo Sports Network.

The new channel — available on Insight's digital cable lineup on Channel 524 or over the air as Channel 18.2 — will broadcast 24/7.

It's part of a push by Wazoo Sports, which has been broadcasting high school sporting events online, to reach a larger audience, said Jeff Sheppard, the former UK basketball player who is Wazoo's vice president of business development.

Sheppard said the firm has reached a similar deal with Louisville affiliate WHAS to air the network there and hopes to expand to other stations in the state.

"In December, we will have distribution in over 500,000 homes across Kentucky," he said. "By spring, we will hopefully have 700,000 to 800,000 homes. ... The decision for us was an aggressive decision but one that we're getting a lot of traction from all around the state."

The highlight of the channel will be live coverage of high school sporting events, including basketball games from this weekend's Coal Classic in Corbin.

"They have done a good job thus far in exposing some high school teams who wouldn't get exposure any other way," said WLEX General Manager Pat Dalbey.

Complementing live high school sports will be UK basketball and football games dating to the early 1950s. Sheppard said Wazoo Sports is working with archivists at UK who are restoring the oldest films.

Among the games viewers will see are UK's 1996 and 1998 NCAA championship victories, as well as the famous 1992 tournament loss to Duke on Christian Laettner's last-second shot.

That game will air on Christmas Day, Sheppard said, among a number of others, including the 1996 and 1998 championship games, the University of Louisville's 1980 and 1986 championship games and perhaps UK's 1978 championship victory.

The 1996 and 1998 championships may air before Christmas, too, he said.

Explaining why the network would air the loss to Duke on Christmas, Sheppard said he considers it the greatest game in the history of college basketball.

"Even though we lost the game, it was the game that told everybody in college basketball and everybody in the country that Kentucky basketball was back," he said.

Airing the classic games does not conflict with the university's athletics marketing agreement with IMG College, said Tom Stultz, senior vice president and managing director of the company. That agreement, he said, did not include classic games.

Sheppard declined to disclose the rights holder from which Wazoo Sports licensed the games, and a UK Athletics representative could not be reached after business hours.

Sheppard said the network also has the rights to air games from smaller universities and colleges, he said.

Dalbey said the channel is set up like a traditional network and affiliate relationship. WLEX has the option to sell advertising during portions of programs, as does Wazoo Sports. He said WLEX also plans to contribute coverage of the Kentucky Derby and World Equestrian Games to the station.

"We don't expect the audiences for any particular show to be huge, but we know who they're going to be," he said. "And there are some great rivalries between the high schools that we're going to be able to attract nice-size audiences."

WLEX is working with other area cable systems to have the channel added to their lineups, Dalbey said. Time Warner Cable officials told him they would have to wait 30 days, "but it looks like we're going to get that done."

The addition of the subchannel is a change in philosophy for WLEX, which had resisted them in years past, saying it did not want to degrade the quality of high-definition NBC programming.

"We thought this was a good local product," Dalbey said. "We weren't going to do it just to create a weather channel or something like that.

"We felt like this has an opportunity to showcase high school sports in a way it's never been showcased before."

He said the station ran tests before the launch and didn't detect any signal degradation.

"Had we been really concerned about that, we probably wouldn't have done it," he said.