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Volume 23 No. 23
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Future of NBC-Universal Sports ties unclear

When NBC invested in Universal Sports in 2008, it looked like the media heavyweight was committing to develop a year-round Olympic sports network. But six years later, the partnership may be coming to an end.

NBC took around a 10 to 12 percent stake in the channel, which is owned by Leo Hindery’s InterMedia Advisors. The partnership is designed to begin unwinding at the end of this year, according to sources familiar with the agreement.

“In conjunction with Universal Sports and its majority owner InterMedia Partners, we are examining the future of our partnership,” an NBC spokesman said.

If NBC doesn’t negotiate a new partnership — which could involve extending its current investment and promotional commitments — Universal Sports will move forward as an independent, Olympic and endurance sports network.

If NBC opts out, it’s likely that the channel will try to find other partners, but the channel would face a tough road moving forward without NBC, the Olympics’ U.S. rights holder through 2032.

The U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, unsure of NBC’s commitment, signed a one-year TV deal with Universal Sports.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
The uncertainty around NBC’s commitment to Universal Sports has caused uneasiness among some national governing bodies about working with the InterMedia-owned network. The U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association opted to sign a one-year, TV-rights deal with Universal Sports for the 2014-15 season and won’t decide about extending or ending the partnership until there’s clarity about NBC’s partnership with Universal Sports.

“We are more than interested in what will happen,” USSA chief marketer Mike Jaquet said. “We’d like [Universal Sports] to not just survive but grow. We also know the challenges that exist for it to grow.”

Others remain committed to working with Universal Sports regardless of NBC’s involvement with the network. USA Gymnastics, which has a rights deal with NBC and Universal Sports through 2016, has been working with Universal Sports since before NBC invested in the network, when it was then known as World Championships Sports Network.

“We’ve found ways that whatever we did with Universal was always compatible with our partnership with NBC,” said Steve Penny, president and CEO of USA Gymnastics. “Depending on what everyone decides to do, we’ll look at it and go from there.”

InterMedia Partners managing partner Peter Kern said the company remains committed to Universal Sports, though he declined to talk about NBC.

“We still believe in this space,” Kern said. “Distributors have been pleased with the network and how it’s performed. We think we’ve done a lot to promote Olympic and endurance sports and athletes, and we plan on continuing that.”

The potential dissolution of the partnership comes as the International Olympic Committee has discussed launching its own over-the-top Olympic network. IOC executives expect to have a worldwide OTT network up and running next year and plans to work with broadcast partners during its launch phase.

NBC invested in Universal Sports in 2008, when it was known as WCSN, a digital service with live Olympic sports. The investment occurred around the same time the U.S. Olympic Committee announced a partnership with Comcast to launch an Olympic network. NBC Sports’ chairman at the time, Dick Ebersol, asked the IOC to block the USOC network because NBC had its own Olympic network in Universal Sports.

A lot has changed since then. Comcast bought NBC, and NBC Sports’ focus shifted from Universal Sports, which was the only all-sports cable channel in which it had an investment, to NBC Sports Network, Golf Channel and Comcast’s regional sports networks.

Universal Sports has continued to acquire rights and expand its distribution since then. Last year, it extended its agreement with the International Association of Athletics Federations through 2019 for the world championships of track and field. It also secured distribution from Cox Communications, Time Warner Cable and CenturyLink.