Big Games, Bigger Dollars

From the Olympics to the NFL, there is plenty of off-the-field sports action for 2012

Are you ready for some
(more) football?

Oops…sorry, Hank; didn’t
mean to rub any salt in that wound. But
the eyes of the sports world—and even
more so the cable television world—will
be on the National Football League in
2012, when the NFL is expected to roll
out a new package of Thursday-night
games for the first half of the season (a
late-season package already resides on
the league’s NFL Network).

And competition for the package is fierce. How fierce? Influential New England
Patriots owner Bob Kraft’s stadium
suite has seen a TV exec or three milling
around there a lot this season, and they
weren’t on hand to watch Tom Brady.
There is even an Oliver Stone-type line
of thought that says NBCUniversal did
a Major League Soccer TV deal just to
curry favor with Kraft—who is also an
MLS team owner—in hopes of pushing
the NFL deal their way.

So why does everyone want
Thursday-night football so badly? Because
there are networks to launch—or
re-launch. And there is no better way to
do that than by adding eight live NFL
games. NBCUniversal is dying to get the
package to breathe life into a revamped
Versus (now called the NBC Sports Network),
which is a major
priority for its sports division.
Turner is also chasing
the package hard,
as the NFL would look
pretty good on its TruTV
network, which last year
started showing NCAA
basketball tournament
games and made a play
for the Ultimate Fighting
Championship as part of
its evolving look.

“It’s going to be a really
big story, because those
who own the NFL are
kings,” says Richard Deitsch, who covers
media for Sports Illustrated.

There will be other deals coming up
for negotiation as well, including that
of Major League Baseball. “And there is
yet another competitor this time in NBC
and [the now former] Versus,” says John
Ourand of The Sports Business Daily and
Sports Business Journal. Ourand also notes
that NASCAR’s TV deals will be coming
into play, and the timing is good for the
racing outfit as “they have bounced off
the bottom in terms of ratings.”

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An Olympian Hurdle

London is calling this year as the
Summer Olympic Games return to
NBC. The network lost more than $220
million the last time around, when the
2010 Winter Games were in time zonefriendly
Vancouver. There is no reason
to expect the financials to look any better
for the second Olympiad in NBC’s
$2 billion deal back in 2003 for the ’10
and ’12 Games.

Yet NBC parent Comcast did not flinch when it came to paying Herculean
dollars to keep the property, reportedly
dropping nearly $4.4 billion for the next
four installments of the Olympics beginning
in 2014 in Sochi, Russia.

Now it remains to be seen if the
Olympics can still run ratings rings
around the competition for two weeks
every other year.

“NBC paid a fortune to maintain its
rights-holder status—many believe they
paid too much,” says Deitsch. “I’m going
to be fascinated with how London ratings
go—which has a lot of appeal for
an American audience. The next Olympics
in Sochi has the potential to be a
ratings disaster, so we need to see if the
Olympics still has the same appeal for
Americans as they have in the past.”

Another aspect to watch from a ratings
standpoint: Unlike during the Dick
Ebersol era, NBC has promised to provide
live coverage (on TV or online) of
every single event.

Regionally Speaking

While industry observers love to ask
NBC Sports Network brass about going
after ESPN one day, and wonder
whether News Corp. will convert one
of its existing cable channels to a 24-
hour national sports network, the most
interesting sports battleground may be
on the regional side.

Keep an eye on what Time Warner Cable
is up to (Fox didn’t, and they lost the
Los Angeles Lakers out West), because
Melinda Witmer and her team don’t
appear to be thinking small. (“The
Dodgers are going to get a ridiculous
amount of money,” notes Ourand.) And
the explosion of regionally based networks
like that of the Pac-12 continues,
though with college sports in a massive
conference realignment upheaval, calling
them “regional” won’t make sense
for much longer.

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