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Just as the past year in sports media was dominated by speculation surrounding Comcast’s pending acquisition of NBC, the coming year will be defined by how aggressive the new company will be as it tries to retain and expand sports rights. There’s no question the company will be at the table for Olympic, NFL, NHL and Pac-10 negotiations this year. The big question is, How serious will they be?
Here’s a list of other predictions for the next 12 months.
The NFL will decide to expand to an 18-game season, selling a new package to a cable network.
It seems certain that the NFL will expand to have 18 regular-season games, likely starting in 2012. The move will wipe out two preseason games, and the season will end on Presidents Day weekend. Once the league’s current TV deals end in 2013, NFL Network will wind up with a full season’s worth of games. The NFL will carve out another 18-game schedule that it will shop to Comcast, Turner and Fox (for FX). It’s anybody’s guess who will get it, but since this is a predictions column, I’ll go with Comcast, who will put it on Versus — or whatever the channel is eventually called.
Work stoppages will affect both the NFL and NBA.
The NFL will lose a couple of preseason games before reaching an agreement in late August. The news isn’t so good for the NBA, which wants more drastic changes to its system. The NBA will lose at least half of its season, with an abbreviated season starting in February or March.
The NHL will split its media rights package between ESPN and Comcast.
The NHL has momentum as it wraps up the final year of its TV contract, and I’d be shocked if the league didn’t improve on the three-year, $207.5 million deal (with an option for three more seasons) that it signed in 2005 with Versus. Don’t be surprised to see the NHL sell a “Game of the Week” package for ESPN2, including some Stanley Cup games. Under this scenario, Comcast-owned Versus would keep the bigger cable package, and Comcast-owned NBC would keep a broadcast schedule.
Comcast will pay less but still pick up the Olympic rights for the 2014 and 2016 Games.
ESPN will make a strong push for the Games and may even bid more than Comcast. But Comcast will win the IOC over when Dick Ebersol convinces them to allow him to cement his legacy with two final Games: the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
ESPN gives up on plans for a 24/7 3-D channel.
3-D is not the next HD. Cable and satellite operators are lukewarm about it. Programmers aren’t making any money on it. And, most importantly, consumers aren’t clamoring for it. I expect ESPN to continue producing a lot of games in 3-D but ultimately put its 3-D channel on the shelf since it won’t have nearly enough content to support it.
Versus will change its name to something that incorporates the NBC Sports brand.
Versus is going to become the NBC Sports Channel or the NBC Sports Network or maybe even SNBC. It’s going to start carrying some of the properties that are on NBC, like one or two of Notre Dame’s non-marquee games.
CBS College Sports will expand its programming lineup beyond just college sports.
At some point this year, new CBS College Sports President David Berson will expand the channel’s focus to include multiple sports, not just college. CBS executives believe that a CBS Sports cable channel, which should hit the 40 million-home distribution mark soon, is the surest way to increase distribution and ratings.
Fox will roll out more regular-season prime-time baseball games.
Following the ratings success of two prime-time Saturday games in 2010, look for Fox to migrate even more games from afternoon to evening next season. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Fox sign former ESPN announcer Jon Miller to handle play-by-play for some national games or even experiment with Miller, having him call games without an analyst.
Small sports channels will lose subscribers.
The message from distributors this fall was clear. They will drop channels that don’t attract viewers. We saw it when Versus went dark on DirecTV for much of the regular season. We’ll see it this year, too, as sports channels like Golf Channel and Tennis Channel look to renew their deals with distributors.
NASCAR TV ratings have hit bottom.
NASCAR TV ratings will reverse their downward trend in 2011 and see a slight uptick. This past year, potholes hurt the Daytona 500 numbers, the Winter Olympics siphoned viewers, and the circuit lost viewers in the move from ABC to ESPN. If NASCAR doesn’t show ratings growth in 2011, its problems will be bigger than even I imagine.
Check in next year at this time to review how many I hit on. I’m sure you’ll hold me to them.
John Ourand can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.