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Volume 21 No. 1
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NBC eyes USA Track & Field to build out Olympic sports roster

Network’s strategy changed after acquisition by Comcast

There was a time when Olympic sports executives would compare NBC to a magician. Every two years, the broadcast network appeared to pull Olympic sports out of a hat, put them on visual display for 17 days and then store them away until the next Games to preserve the magic of the Olympics.

Those days are over.

Now, NBC is on its way to becoming the Olympics channel even in non-Olympic years. It has spent the last eight years acquiring rights to most Olympic sports, from figure skating to swimming, and the network is close to announcing a deal for the last major Olympic sport it doesn’t exclusively hold: track and field.

Since the 2008 Beijing Games, NBC Sports has added more than 60 hours of additional Olympic programming from marquee sports such as swimming, gymnastics, figure skating and skiing. It also added rugby programming, which will make its Olympic debut in 2016, and aired the inaugural Olympic trials of speedskating.

USA Track & Field would shift all of its events to NBC through 2016.
Previously, those sports had been carried on other TV channels, if at all.

“There’s been a shift, and NBC is more responsive in terms of programming and production than they’ve ever been when it comes to swimming and Olympic sports,” said Matt Farrell, USA Swimming’s chief marketing officer.

NBC, which has held rights to the Olympic Games since 1988, declined to make an executive available for this story.

It’s not surprising to see media companies gobble up sports rights these days thanks to the launch of several 24-hour sports channels. Live sports programming is the best way to stand out, and the tonnage of Olympics programming can fill out a schedule.

NBC’s push to pick up these rights has shut out other broadcasters with 24-hour sports networks, like ESPN, Fox and CBS. Executives with those networks say they would be interested in rights to some Olympic sports, but they have not even had preliminary conversations with the national governing bodies because NBC has been effective at locking up the rights.

Some of the deals are revenue-sharing deals; some involve rights fees, depending on the popularity of the sport. But the business model has been less important to the national governing bodies selling the rights than the promotional value they believe they get by working with the longtime Olympic rights holder.

“It allows NBC, the U.S. Olympic Committee and [national governing bodies] to work together, and that collective effort is going to be important for promoting, selling the product and providing more value to corporate America,” said USA Gymnastics President and CEO Steve Penny.

NBC’s change in strategy can be traced back to Comcast’s acquisition of NBCUniversal in 2010. NBC Sports rebranded the Comcast-owned sports channel Versus into NBC Sports Network and needed to secure content for the channel.

“Now with the family of TV sports channels it operates, NBC has more of a need for quality programming,” said sports media consultant Neal Pilson, who consulted for the International Olympic Committee several years ago. “NBC didn’t have sufficient platforms or sales for these sports before it controlled NBC Sports Network and the regional sports channels.”

The strategy change also came after a push from several national governing bodies and the USOC to have their sports televised in non-Olympic years. In 2007, USA Swimming, USA Gymnastics and USA Track & Field signed a deal with Wasserman Media Group that was supposed to create a digital network to show their competitions. Around the same time, the USOC began pushing to launch an Olympic cable network.

Neither venture was successful, but the efforts served to prompt NBC to re-evaluate its approach to covering Olympic sports in non-Olympic years. In 2008, it took a small stake in Universal Sports, a channel with limited distribution that shows Olympic and endurance sports, and after the Comcast merger in 2011, it began carving out more programming for Olympic sports on NBC Sports Network.

Its aggregation of Olympic rights has been steady since then, and its most recent Olympic acquisition — a five-year deal with the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association — highlighted why the company has made that push. The revenue-sharing deal will see NBC Sports increase total ski and snowboarding coverage by 14 hours.

Speaking about the deal in Sochi, Jon Miller, president of programming at NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network, said it was important to increase the hours it showed those sports because they contributed 40 percent of Team USA’s athletes for the Sochi Games.

“It’s important people become familiar with the athletes, the sports and the disciplines [before the Olympics],” Miller said.

NBC will follow the USSA acquisition with a USA Track & Field deal. Over the last decade, the national governing body’s programming has been split between ESPN and NBC Sports, but it is shifting coverage of all of its major events to NBC through 2016. NBC and NBC Sports Network for the first time will show 16 hours of track and field competition between April and July. A formal announcement of their partnership is expected next month.

The top Olympic sports deliver the type of viewership that’s comparable to established sports like regular-season college basketball. For example, USATF’s Prefontaine Classic last year averaged 1.2 million viewers on NBC, the 2013 FINA World Championships averaged 813,000 viewers over three two-hour broadcasts on NBC, and the U.S. Figure Skating Championships averaged 3.7 million viewers for a prime-time telecast on NBC in 2012.

National governing body executives say the change in NBC’s strategy is good for their business, allowing them to integrate more NBC advertising inventory into their sales packages. For the first time, USA Gymnastics, USA Swimming and USATF partnered on a joint sponsorship package that includes hospitality assets and advertising inventory for all three sports. The deal was made possible, in part, by USATF’s new agreement with NBC. The three NGBs are billing themselves as the “Trio to Rio.”

“We couldn’t have done it without NBC,” Penny said. “We’ve got this entire yearlong package to sell.”

Staff writer Austin Karp contributed to this story.