Big Events, Big Deals Mark Sports World in 2010

Viewers will flock to Olympics and World Cup; industry will be eyeing major rights deals
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While the sordid Tiger Woods saga closed out the 2009 sports world on a down note for all parties involved—save perhaps a divorce lawyer or three—2010 is shaping up to be a fascinating year on the sports television landscape.

Comcast's newest toy will offer the Winter Olympics from Vancouver, also known as NBC Sports' latest test in building celebrities out of people we've never heard of. That is an exam Dick Ebersol and his crew always pass with flying colors, but the tougher task comes on the ad sales side for NBC, with GE already saying it will lose $200 million on the $800-million-plus license fee price tag of the Games.

While U.S. sports leagues, with much bluster, call their annual winners “world champions,” a true global crown will be awarded this summer at the World Cup in South Africa. ESPN has made the event a top priority, drastically outspending any past budget on the month-long extravaganza. And thankfully, ESPN looks to have finally altered its tone for airing soccer, appearing to no longer mistakenly feel it has to introduce the country to the game. Instead, it will present a more informed front that actually justifies the moniker “Worldwide Leader in Sports.”

In 2006, the network used the talented but terribly out-of-place Dave O'Brien as its lead voice; it has now brought in a bevy of knowledgeable names, including legendary British broadcaster Martin Tyler. And so far so good, as the three-hour telecast of last month's World Cup Draw was handled fantastically, thanks in large part to the stellar studio work of the polished and professional Bob Ley. Being handed a USA-England opening game was a gift for both countries, and if ESPN does its job promotion-wise, it should be the most-watched soccer match ever in these parts.

Sandwiched between those two events will be boxing's latest chance to resurrect itself, with a March 13 super-fight between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao that could be the biggest pay-per-view fight of all time for HBO PPV.

While those are three massive events on the screen, there will be plenty going on behind the scenes that could provide just as much drama. First is the aforementioned Olympics; the rights to televise it could actually end up leaving the NBCU camp. Many industry insiders expect Disney to blow away the competition with its bid for the 2014 and 2016 Games, as it has done on other properties—most recently college football's BCS—but the Comcast deal will undoubtedly change the equation. Anyone other than Disney or Comcast-NBCU getting the rights would be considered a “Miracle on Ice”-like upset.

Another property that could come up for grabs is the NCAA basketball tournament. The NCAA can opt out of its deal this year with CBS and open up the bidding to others, including Disney and News Corp.

Elsewhere, the sports world will be watching very carefully what comes of the Comcast-NBCU move. Comcast's Versus network has long held an also-ran status, but many are wondering if this deal could mean that Versus will come out with acquisition guns blazing when major properties start to open up.

Some other things to keep an eye on include NASCAR ratings, which seemed to hit a ceiling recently. But if they stay steady this year, the sport could be cemented once again as a major property that is often overlooked. Just ask HBO and Showtime, which are both entering the NASCAR world. And if mainstream sports star Dale Earnhardt Jr. ever actually wins another race or two, he could drive up ratings by himself.

Finally, in the octagon, can the Ultimate Fighting Championship stay blazing hot? Organization chief Dana White has long said he wants to put his fights on broadcast television, but while he burns up PPV and cable, to this day only smaller upstart Strikeforce, with its CBS deal, has made that jump.

E-mail comments toben.grossman@reedbusiness.com, and follow him on Twitter:@BCBenGrossman

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