SBD/Issue 201/Sports Media

USOC, Comcast Announce Plans To Launch New Olympic Network

The USOC today announced plans to launch an Olympic network in partnership with Comcast. The long-awaited network, which the organization first proposed in ‘06, will be available on Comcast’s digital classic tier, which reaches more than 10 million homes and also houses league-owned networks from the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL. It is expected to launch next year after the Vancouver Olympics and air live events, news and classic Olympic footage. After ‘12, it plans to pick up Olympic trial events for a wide range of sports. The U.S. Olympic Network, as it will be called, also will provide video-on-demand content and a broadband platform with news, highlights and event coverage. The deal was described to NGB leaders as a joint venture between the USOC and Comcast. The partners hope to set up a subscriber fee model for cable systems. Sources said similar partnerships would be available to other cable operators, in an attempt to gain more distribution. USOC COO Norm Bellingham said the financial terms of the Comcast partnership are "confidential," but people familiar with negotiations said the USOC expects up to $30-40M in annual advertising to Comcast in exchange for distribution and support of the channel. It was that opportunity that may have helped overcome Comcast executives’ skepticism about the potential network. Comcast Exec VP/Content Acquisition David Cohen in April said, “Before there can be an Olympic Channel or an Olympic Network, you have to really figure out what it is that’s going to be on it and what it does to Olympic rights. ... If you think about it, almost every premier event that you or I would want to watch related to the Olympics has been sold to some network.” Comcast also was swayed by a personal appeal from former USOC Chair Peter Ueberroth, who persuaded Comcast head Brian Roberts that Comcast's support for a non-profit channel focused on the Olympics could offer both political and financial benefits.

COMCAST TO MANAGE THE CHANNEL: Comcast will have management responsibilities over the channel, but it will not be part of Comcast’s network group, which includes Versus, Golf Channel and several RSNs. Comcast has several similar network arrangements, including with SportsNet N.Y. and TV One. The channel is expected to feature a mix of live and taped events, documentaries on Olympic moments, biographies of athletes, and coaching and instructional videos. The USOC partnered with Comcast after previously approaching ESPN, Discovery and NBC with the idea. The network will face considerable competition from Universal Sports, NBC’s new sports channel dedicated to Olympic sports. The NBC channel, which already has distribution in 50 million homes, has rights to marquee international competitions such as the FINA World Swimming Championships and the Alpine World Ski Championships. That network is expected to announce additional distribution in the coming weeks. The partnership with Comcast ends three years of planning by the organization. Former USOC CEO Jim Scherr first spoke of the organization's intention to launch a network in July ‘06. He hired Bellingham, the former Senior VP/Strategic Planning at Turner Broadcasting, in October 2006 and put him in charge of the project. The deal with Comcast comes ahead of the IOC's plans to put U.S. broadcast rights for the ‘14 and ‘16 Games up for bid. The tender for the rights was postponed because of the economy and is expected to be held in ‘10. Many media and Olympic experts considered an alliance with the USOC an asset in bidding for the rights, but Comcast has not said whether it plans to bid or not. To date, only Fox, ESPN and NBC have expressed interest publicly in bidding for the rights.

LONG TIME COMING: USOC Acting CEO Stephanie Streeter said, “For fans of the Olympics, this new network will be a dream come true. What’s truly exciting about this opportunity for fans is that the USON will deliver rich exciting content.” Streeter added the USOC “hopes to not only inspire a new generation of athletes but also teach people about the value of the Olympic opportunities.” USOC Chair Larry Probst added the network “creates great new opportunities for our official USOC sponsors who have been looking for ways to promote their affiliation with the Olympic movement in between Games." Ueberroth said "Our revenues can go up dramatically based on sponsors can go to market every single day. ... This will only enhance more money for the United States Olympics ... and the national governing bodies."

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