SBJ/Dec. 14, 2009/Media

Forecast 2010: Chase for Olympic rights keeps Ebersol at NBC

Comcast’s pending acquisition of NBC will be the dominant story in sports media next year, so guesses about what the new company will look like dominate my annual predictions column. Last year, this column hit more than it missed. It correctly predicted that Olympic TV bidding would be pushed back a year but incorrectly guessed that the Bernie Madoff scandal would cause the New York Mets to sell part of SportsNet New York to Time Warner or Comcast. Let’s see how accurate I am this year.

 Comcast-NBC merger will close in the fall.
It seems that most people are predicting that regulators in Washington will take more than a year to give their OK to Comcast’s plan to acquire NBC. I don’t think it will take that long. In fact, I see FCC approval coming in September or October. My optimism is based on the size and power of Comcast and GE’s D.C. lobbying firms. I also expect Comcast to agree to significant provisions related to retransmission consent and regional sports network carriage. Does that mean DirecTV will finally get access to Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia? Probably not.

 Ebersol will sign a three-year deal.
Broadcasting legend Dick Ebersol will agree to stay with Comcast, signing a three-year deal that puts him in charge of all NBC/Comcast sports networks. He will oversee NBC Sports, Versus, Golf Channel, Universal Sports and the RSNs. But his main job will be to secure Olympic rights for the 2014 and 2016 Olympics. Ebersol will be energized by the challenge of putting his stamp on Comcast’s sports networks, but it’s the prospect of securing more Olympic rights that really convinces him to stay.

Will the IOC delay bidding on TV rights for the
2014 and 2016 Olympic Games until 2011?

 Olympic bidding will be pushed to 2011.
The International Olympic Committee already delayed the bidding process once. I have a hunch they will do it again to let the Comcast-NBC acquisition go through the regulatory approval process. The problem for the IOC right now is that it looks like only two networks will make serious bids for Olympic rights: ESPN and NBC. The IOC will want to ensure that a fully engaged and deep-pocketed NBC/Comcast is at the table.

 Comcast/NBC will win Olympic rights for 2014 and 2016.
I can’t see a scenario in which Comcast comes up short on its first major sports rights purchase. Throw in Ebersol’s tight relationship with the IOC, and the Comcast-run NBC will hold onto the Olympics. That will leave ESPN flush with cash, which it will use to pick up rights to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, which will expand to 96 teams in 2011.

 Comcast expands RSN business.
Everybody’s looking at NBC Sports, Versus, Golf Channel and Universal Sports as the most likely future competitors to ESPN. These networks certainly will compete for rights and advertising dollars, but Comcast also will be bulking up its regional sports networks. Look for it to launch at least one more RSN next year and to make a strong play for DirecTV’s three RSNs in Seattle, Denver and Pittsburgh. It won’t acquire those RSNs from DirecTV next year.

 ESPN, Comcast and Fox will compete for ACC, Big 12 and Pac-10 rights.
The first sign of the bulked-up NBC-Comcast will come during TV rights negotiations for college conferences. The ACC will be the only conference to sign a deal in 2010, staying with ESPN. That will leave Comcast and Fox squaring off for the Big 12 and Pac-10 conferences. My guess: In 2011, Comcast will get the Pac-10 rights and Fox will nab the Big 12.

 Versus signs with DirecTV … soon.
DirecTV knows the value of the NHL playoffs and will not wait until the 11th hour in April to sign Versus to a carriage deal. I expect a deal to be wrapped up right around the start of the new year. The story isn’t as good for NFL Network, which won’t cut a deal with either Time Warner Cable or Cablevision next year. After going without NFL Network for the last several years, Time Warner and Cablevision have figured that they won’t lose any more customers who want to watch the channel.

With a success rate of about 50 percent, you can be sure that some of these will be correct. The trick is in figuring out which ones.

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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