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Volume 24 No. 117


ESPN Exec VP/Programming & Acquisitions John Wildhack yesterday said ESPN is "interested" in letting ESPN commentator Dick Vitale and TNT analyst Charles Barkley call action together, according to Michael Hiestand of USA TODAY. However, Wildhack said that he "wouldn't specify the event or roles." Barkley said, "With the NCAA, I would love to call a game with Dick Vitale. I've talked to Dick about it. We're all in the same business of promoting the tournament. We all need to forget the ESPN, CBS, TNT stuff -- we're all in the business of promoting college basketball." Asked about the chance to work with Barkley, Vitale "seemed even more psyched." He said, "I'd love to do a game with him! He's terrific! We'd have so much fun on the telecast." Hiestand writes CBS "might just consider using Vitale to be a 'no-brainer.'" That is how CBS Sports Group Chair Sean McManus "put it in 2006 when asked why the network had asked ESPN to use Vitale on the tournament before being turned down." Vitale: "Several times over the years CBS wanted me to do NCAA tournament games. But I didn't get upset with ESPN. I was flattered they thought that much of me" (USA TODAY, 12/5).

NBC Sports Group Chair Mark Lazarus in a "busy first year" on the job oversaw a “record-setting Super Bowl, turned a profit on the London Games despite sniping from critics ... and rebranded the cable network Versus as the NBC Sports Network, venturing onto turf dominated by ESPN,” according to a cover story by Jon Lafayette of BROADCASTING & CABLE. Lazarus, named B&C Sports Executive of the Year, called it "an excellent year" as he discussed future plans with NBC. The following is an excerpt from the Q&A:

Q: Any big changes planned? Or do you feel you have a pretty good playbook?
Lazarus: I think by and large our playbook is solid. But we will continue to try new things and alter things that we think can enhance the consumer experience. ... Sometime in the first quarter of next year we'll start to lay out what our plan will be.

Q: You still have a time-zone difference [with the Olympics], so the issue is still how much stuff do you stream or broadcast when they're live as opposed to holding back for primetime.
Lazarus: We will not go backwards making everything available by live stream. So what we hold and how we program the television network is still what we're discussing. But also we need, from a business point of view, for primetime (to attract viewers).

Q: Where is the NBC Sports Network in terms of where you want it to be?
Lazarus: I've said all along it's a long-term plan. It's going to take us five years. Certainly it's a little slower going than I would have liked. I think that's always the case anytime you're trying to grow something.

Q: How big a problem is not having hockey because of the lockout?
Lazarus: It's down. We've been filling our primetime with some good college basketball and some good college hockey, but the NHL is a staple of our primetime lineup from October until May, and not having it is definitely harmful to us.

Q: What does the national cable sports business look like in your five-year plan for NBC Sports Network?
Lazarus: It's competitive. We want to continue to grow this business and have a long-term asset that's profitable, and that's our intention. ... We surround events and are helping grow the game. So as far as the national landscape, we think there's a role for that kind of business. ... It will work closely with NBC broadcast sports, and we think that one-two punch is a very strong player in the national sports space.

Q: It seems that to grow in this business, you've got to be willing to make big bets and write big checks. Do you get a sense that management -- Steve Burke and Brian Roberts -- are comfortable writing those big checks?
Lazarus: We've probably written 16 or so billion dollars in checks in the last 15 months, so the answer is an unqualified yes. Between the NFL renewal, the Olympics, the NHL, EPL, PGA Tour, Formula 1, we have signed sizable checks. And add to that the FIFA World Cup for Telemundo. ... We won't do it recklessly but we are investors.

Q: Do you think the economics of the regional sports business are changing and supportable?
Lazarus: I think that remains to be seen. ... You have to admire the way Fox is aggressive in attaining their goals.

Q: Do you think there's a way of channeling their big regional investments into some sort of a national presence?
Lazarus: They haven't tipped their hand. I think the way we support our national businesses with our regional sports networks, they will do the same. But those rights don't travel (BROADCASTING & CABLE, 12/3 issue). 

NBC's Bob Costas last night continued to defend his "SNF" halftime comments regarding the Jovan Belcher murder-suicide, saying, "What I was talking about here, and I'm sorry if that wasn't clear to everybody, was a gun culture. I never mentioned the Second Amendment. I never used the words ‘gun control.’ People inferred that. Now do I believe we need more comprehensive and more sensible gun control legislation? Yes, I do. That doesn't mean repeal the Second Amendment.” He added, “No one is saying that Belcher is not responsible. In fact, earlier in the day, I said that I was appalled by the way some of this had been covered initially by some of the sports networks where they made it seem … like there were two victims” ("The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell," MSNBC, 12/4).

SET TO JET: The NFL Jets have signed a multiyear extension with ESPN Radio 98.7 N.Y. to continue as the team's flagship radio station. The station will broadcast every Jets game, as well as pre- and postgame programming. A variety of Jets-related programs will continue to air on the station, including a weekly interview with coach Rex Ryan. Additionally, ESPN Deportes 1050 N.Y. will carry its own broadcasts of Jets games and pre- and postgame shows (Jets).

ACROSS THE POND: The NBA and ESPN have reached a new TV rights deal in the U.K. that will put live NBA games on ESPN in the U.K. and Ireland for the rest of the '12-13 season. ESPN has had NBA rights for the past three years. Until now, both sides had not reached an agreement for this season. Sources say the NBA is still negotiating to place a package on Sky for the rest of this season. The ESPN deal calls for the company's U.K. and Ireland network to air three live games per week for the remainder of the season along with the Western Conference playoffs and the NBA Finals. It will carry its first game of the season tomorrow with the Knicks-Heat matchup (Lombardo & Ourand, SportsBusiness Journal).

GAINING SPEED: Horrow Sports Ventures CEO Rick Horrow noted News Corp. is “moving forward with plans" to turn Speed into Fox Sports 1, an "all-sports TV network by the middle of next year." News Corp. execs believe their company is "uniquely positioned to compete against ESPN because of their previous success breaking into the broadcast and cable news markets with Fox and Fox News, respectively." NBC and CBS also have 24-hour sports networks, but where Fox "hopes to differentiate itself is with distribution and live sports rights." Speed already is in "more than 80 million homes, and Fox owns rights to MLB, NASCAR, college sports and UFC" ("Nightly Business Report," PBS, 12/4).