Sports fans in Los Angeles have a new cable channel to watch. Universal Sports debuted last week in Los Angeles on Time Warner Cable Channel 226.

Los Angeles-based World Championship Sports Network formed a partnership with NBC Universal and relaunched its television station with the new name.

"The key to the partnership is NBC Universal's ability to enhance our distribution," said Claude Ruibal, president of World Championship Sports Network.

The partnership got the company its spot on basic cable in both Los Angeles and New York. Its digital TV channel now has distribution in 13 million homes, compared with just 2 million homes before the partnership was announced. Ruibal expects NBC Universal to help the channel continue gaining viewers and hopes to be in 90 million households by the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver.

The network will also have access to NBC Universal Olympic programming. Universal Sports will be able to replay all 5,000 hours of competition from the upcoming 2008 Beijing Olympics or cut the footage into highlight clips.

The company must now focus on getting a return on its investments.

"Our biggest challenge was getting people to see the television network," Ruibal said. "Now, we have to monetize it."

Many advertisers team up with Olympic sport governing bodies and Olympic athletes as official sponsors. With the network's wider distribution, advertisers who have looked at purchasing spots on the network will be more favorably inclined to invest their budgets.

Ruibal hopes this will build relationships. "Companies want to market their sponsorships beyond the Olympics and we are committed to sports year-round," he said.

Foreign Fighters

Two major tournaments in the world of mixed martial arts are coming to Southern California this month, and that means L.A. attorney Richard Wilner is in a frenzy of activity. Many of the fighters come from abroad, and Wilner has to get them their visas.

As mixed martial-arts sports grow in popularity, the plethora of leagues are constantly looking for new and better talent. The search routinely produces athletes from Brazil, Thailand, Russia and many other countries across the globe. Nearly every event has at least one foreign fighter competing.

Getting those athletes to Southern California is Wilner's specialty.

"I've helped arrange for 50-60 visas over the past year," said Wilner, a partner at Cerritos-based Wilner & O'Reilly APLC.

The fighters need P-1 visas, which allow athletes to participate in a competition held in the United States.

Visas cost the athlete several thousand dollars, but are worth the investment as sponsorship and purses have grown in the sport. If an athlete can't get a visa, he or she could lose an opportunity to make hundreds of thousands of dollars for a main event.

Wilner began his career in Southeast Asia, doing maritime work tracking down stolen cargo. He returned to the United States and continued his cargo business while playing rugby for fun. He became more interested in the link between sports and immigration by doing work for rugby players. But he didn't make enough money to turn it into a profession.

Eventually, Wilner gave up rugby for Brazilian jiujitsu, a mixed martial-arts fighting style. During training at the gym, he met Carlos Gracie Jr., the son of the founder of Brazilian jiujitsu. At the time, a fighter that Gracie Jr. knew was having visa trouble.

"Gracie introduced me to one person who I worked for and it's grown all by word of mouth," Wilner said.

Wilner's practice was originally devoted to helping athletes obtain visas to the United States, but it has now expanded into management duties. He helps some of the athletes manage their finances, arranges health insurance for the athlete and his or her family, and makes sure that athletes contact financial professionals in order to pay taxes as required.

Wilner doesn't like to give legal advice at the gym.

"I politely decline and ask them to call me at the office," Wilner said.

Now Announcing

While teammate Kobe Bryant is at the Olympics in China competing for Team USA in basketball, Los Angeles Lakers guard Derek Fisher will be spending part of his off-season at Staples Center. But he won't be shooting three-pointers: Fisher will provide commentary on games played by the Los Angeles Sparks women's basketball team.

The 12-year veteran will join play-by-play announcer Larry Burnett as a guest commentator for five telecasts on Fox Sports Network this summer. Former Lakers players including James Worthy, Michael Cooper and Earvin "Magic" Johnson have become successful commentators after their basketball careers. Fisher can lay the groundwork for a successful career by starting while he is still a player.

"Talking about basketball comes very easy to me. It's something I've been doing my whole life," Fisher said in a statement.

Staff reporter David Nusbaum can be reached at dnusbaum@labusinessjournal.com or at (323) 549-5225, ext. 236.

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