November 21, 2015

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. (AP) Luge is the fastest sport on ice and breathtaking for fans watching the competitors whiz by face-up and feet-first on their fiberglass sleds.

It's popular in Germany but rarely seen in the United States, except during the Winter Olympics.

While it's not great news that NBCUniversal shut down Universal Sports Network this week, the home to luge and other Olympic sports, fans can still watch those sports on other NBC networks, such as NBC and NBCSN.

This season, four World Cup luge races will be on NBC, which has a partnership with the International Luge Federation (FIL) to provide live streaming on its website with an English language feed.

''It's great news,'' said Gordy Sheer, marketing director for USA Luge and 1998 Olympic silver medalist in doubles. ''There's a lot of excitement.''

USA Luge has been playing catch up to the Germans, who have dominated the sport for decades. The Germans won gold in every luge event at the 2014 Sochi Games. The headquarters for FIL are located in Berchtesgaden, Germany, in the Bavarian Alps.

''It's great to see the FIL take the initiative,'' Sheer said. ''In the past, luge fans have had to go to various nefarious websites carrying pirated Eurosports streams, or bring in IP (Internet Protocol) blockers to watch German television. The good news is those days are over.''

Berchtesgaden, Germany, is also the birthplace of three-time Olympic champion Georg Hackl, wildly popular in his homeland and regarded as the greatest luger in history. Hackl is now a German team coach.

''Be honest, Germany is the seat of the sport,'' Sheer said. ''It's the epicenter, Berchtesgaden in particular. They have a culture that has taken root over a very long time.''

Trying to make some headway, USA Luge chief executive officer Jim Leahy and board president Dwight Bell traveled to FIL headquarters in March and lobbied for two World Cup events in the United States. This season there are stops in Lake Placid (Dec. 4-5), followed the next week in Park City, Utah. There's also an event in Calgary the week before Christmas.

''We hit the jackpot this season and have three in North America, which is pretty much unheard-of,'' said 2009 world champion Erin Hamlin, of Remsen, New York, who won bronze in the women's race at Sochi. It was the fifth Olympic medal for the U.S. team and its first in singles competition.

''The Europeans kind of control our sport,'' Hamlin said. ''To have two races in just the U.S. alone, I don't think has ever happened.''

Television broadcasts of luge events in Germany have regularly drawn in excess of 40 million viewers over the past two World Cup seasons. There was a high of 67.4 million viewers for Altenberg in 2013-14, according to FIL data.

Sheer hopes more exposure on the NBC networks and live streaming for mobile devices and tablets will draw attention to the sport. Also, USA Luge will have live feeds of training runs on Ustream, which allows parents to watch their kids.

''I kind of feel like we're building a head of steam,'' said Sheer of the sport where athletes can travel up to 90 mph down the course.

One hurdle has not been resolved - World Cup races in North America start on Friday while European events start on Saturday.

FIL's executive board has passed a resolution to establish a working group to deal with marketing and public awareness campaigns for luge. FIL deputy executive director Babette Wegscheider was appointed chairperson and Leahy is part of the group.

''I think it should change, frankly,'' Sheer said. ''I understand the pressure that the international federation is under because of German television ... and the scheduling of our sport because of its popularity over there. I understand the bind that they're in, but at the same time we need to be able to hold our races on the weekends.''

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