Except for the Olympics, the NBC peacock has largely faded from the forefront of the broadcast sports scene lately.
Except for the Olympics, the NBC peacock has largely faded from the forefront of the broadcast sports scene lately.Now with the pending merger of NBC and Comcast, that figures to change — slowly.A combined NBC-Comcast could compete for more NFL coverage, regain Major League Baseball and the NBA, and fight to maintain its exclusive deal for U.S. rights to the Olympics.“I think this is a watershed deal in the history of the broadcast industry,” said former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson, now a television consultant. “It’s the biggest thing that’s happened in my 40 years in broadcasting. No question.”When Comcast Corp. gains majority control in NBC Universal, it will meld NBC into a company that already owns 11 regional sports networks, The Golf Channel and Versus, and also has minority interests in the MLB Network and iNDemand.NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol will transform from cash-starved executive back to a sports tycoon, backed with the monthly cash from Comcast’s 24 million cable television subscribers.“You’re going to see a lot of money come into sports that’s not been put in there by GE over the last few years,” said former YES Network head Leo Hindery. “In recent years they have let everything pretty much drift away.”Ebersol will have the ability to compete for any sports rights that become available, making the new venture a likely competitor with ESPN, which is owned by The Walt Disney Co.Given the complexity of mergers and the timetable for rights to come back on the market, however, it will take years for the new entity to take shape.“Look, I’m not going to talk about ESPN,” Comcast chairman Brian Roberts said. “They have a fantastic business, and sports has proved to be a very profitable category. And almost in every space, there’s more than one participant.”Ebersol and ESPN have declined comment on the merger, not wanting to say anything during the period of limbo between the Dec. 3 announcement and the closing, which needs shareholder and regulatory approval, a process that could take a year.NBC was once a leader in sports television, but it hasn’t televised baseball since 2000, the NBA since 2002 and NASCAR since 2006.After losing its rights to the NFL’s AFC package in 1998, it picked up the league’s Sunday night deal starting in 2006 and rejoined the Super Bowl rotation. It also has televised the NHL since 2005-06, along with Versus, and has retained rights to Notre Dame home football games since 1991.NBC also had a schedule of 26 golf tournaments this year, including the U.S. Open, and has held onto two tennis tournaments, televising Wimbledon since 1969 and the French Open since 1981.The merger will put the NHL’s national rights under one company.“I think the potential is exciting for all hockey fans,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. “In marketing, promotions, scheduling, from our standpoint these important relationships can only be a plus.”The combined company also owns a large swath of local broadcasting rights for teams through regional networks in Atlanta-Southeast; Boston-New England; Chicago; Houston-Southwest; Denver-Mountain West; New York; Philadelphia; Portland, Ore.-Pacific Northwest; the San Francisco Bay area; and Washington, D.C.That in the future could lead to increased flexibility in shifting games between national and local coverage on shorter notice based on teams’ success and popularity. That could start with the NHL and expand to other sports if NBC-Comcast gains national rights.Right now, Versus (formerly the Outdoor Life Network) has a sparse number of wide-interest offerings, highlighted by the NHL and the Tour de France.While NBC has pulled back from team sports, it has concentrated its money on the Olympics, broadcasting every Summer Games since 1988 and every Winter Games since 2002.For the 2008 Beijing Games, NBC’s coverage spilled onto CNBC, MSNBC, USA, Universal HD, Oxygen, Telemundo and specialty channels dedicated to basketball and soccer. Following this deal, Ebersol will have an even broader array of networks to use, which could lead to bold bids to secure Olympics rights for 2014 and 2016 when the International Olympic Committee sells them next year.It could be particularly beneficial to The Golf Channel, with the IOC adding that sport to the program for the 2016 Rio Games.And it could revive the U.S. Olympic Committee’s plans for its own network, which was to be launched with Comcast. Opposition from NBC and the IOC caused the USOC to pull back last August — NBC and its Universal Sports carry most key events from the high-profile Olympic sports and did not want competition.Because of the high startup cost, Pilson doesn’t think NBC-Comcast will try to compete with ESPN’s sports news coverage or its dominating regular-season coverage in the two prime NCAA sports, football and basketball.“I don’t think you’re going to see Versus with a SportsCenter,” he said. “I don’t think Versus is going to be chasing 300, 400 college basketball games, 100 or more college football games.”So where will the competition be?“The big events: the Olympics, the BCS, possibly try to get back into baseball and perhaps try to secure a second package with the NFL,” he said.That could take a long time. The NFL’s contracts with CBS, NBC, FOX and ESPN all expire after the 2013 season, the same year that baseball’s national deals with FOX and TBS run out. ESPN has rights to all Bowl Championship Series games from January 2011 through January 2014, and CBS’s 11-year deal to televise the NCAA basketball tournament runs through 2014. The NBA’s contracts with ABC and Turner run through the 2015-16 season.Given the base of its regional sports networks, NBC-Comcast figures to get into the business of online local sports news, which ESPN is starting in Boston, Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles. But don’t expect NBC-Comcast to compete internationally with ESPN, which operates networks in Asia, Australia, Brazil, Europe, Latin America and the United Kingdom.Ebersol probably will play the lead role for the new sports television giant.“I think it’s fair to say that when you think of sports on a national or global scale, it’s hard not to think of NBC Sports and Dick Ebersol,” Roberts said. “And the ability to have those regional sports businesses combine with NBC Sports and Versus and put it all together, whether it’s backdrop or new games or new programming, I think those businesses belong together.”Hindery, currently managing partner of the investment group InterMedia Partners, expects the combined operation to focus on high-profile events, including additional NFL rights."They’re going to be interested in anything that stretches over lengthy periods of time, so the longer the season, the more the interest,” he said. “That’s the nature of the cable distribution — or the cable format vs. broadcast. Broadcast does a great job with single event or limited event programming. Cable does a much better job with season-long sorts of offerings.”