NBC Could Still Top ESPN’s Bargain Bin Oly Bid

This week John Ourand and Tripp Mickle of SPORTSBUSINESS JOURNAL have a very interesting piece examining the only thing that keeps the Olympics relevant. That is, the interest of American network television.

NBC Olympics

The International Olympic Committee is getting a tepid response from U.S. broadcasters in Vancouver as it tries to build up interest in the next round of bidding for Olympic rights in 2014 and 2016.

Two potential bidders decided against making the trip to Vancouver, and the ones that ventured north were prepared to tell IOC executives that they will not bid as much as NBC bid on the 2010 and 2012 Games. NBC paid $2.1 billion in rights for the Vancouver and London Olympics.

CBS and Fox execs did not elect to meet with the IOC about acquiring the broadcast rights to future Games, though ESPN and Turner did. With the Comcast/NBC merger not yet approved, Dick Ebersol & Co. are holding off on talks with the IOC. SBJ reports a government ruling on the merger isn’t expected until “early next year.

On the subject of ESPN acquiring the broadcast rights to The Games, ESPN PR VP Josh Krulewitz told me this week:

We are interested in the U.S. rights if we can find a deal that makes economic sense and provides value.Q: So with Olympics sugar daddy NBC on the sidelines, why is the IOC entertaining any bids at the moment?
A: The NCAA basketball tournament.

SBJ reports:

Some think the IOC will wait till early next year, after Comcast’s NBC acquisition is official. However, IOC sources said they may move earlier and beat the NCAA to market if the NCAA decides to pull out of its CBS contract. The theory is that NCAA tourney bidding could suck billions of media rights dollars out of the marketplace.

On Feb. 1,  Ourand and Michael Smith of SPORTSBUSINESS JOURNAL reported that ESPN, Fox and a Turner-CBS collaboration may vie for broadcast rights of the basketball tournament. The NCAA has until Aug. 31 to decide if it will opt-out and open up the bidding on what would be a billion-dollar proposition.

With NBC on the sidelines for now, ESPN and Turner appear to be feeling out the IOC to see if they might be able to get the Olympics on the cheap. But a high level network television programming source told me today that he expects to see NBC out front of the bidding as soon as Washington signs off on the NBC/Comcast coupling.

My source, who also has intimate knowledge of the prospects of the merger, told me today:

I can’t predict Washington and what concessions will be made, but I think the deal is going through.

Comcast and Versus (an asset with great upside) along with Ebersol and NBC Sports will make a great combination to reel in the big fish, such as the Olympics. Versus will be especially useful for the Olympics. Everything I see and hear indicates Ebersol will be running NBC Sports as he was before.

I see NBC in the mix and not an open field for ESPN.

If my source knows that, Ebersol certainly does and you can bet he’s in constant communication with the IOC about NBC prospects in covering future Games. With NBC “in the mix” for 2014 and 2016, the chances of ESPN stealing the broadcast rights for a song are remote.

The only question that really remains is if the IOC will indeeed rush to do a deal before the NCAA makes a move. With CBS and Fox apparently not interested in the Olympics, and ESPN lowballing, it’s reasonable to assume the IOC will wait for NBC’s merger with Comcast to be finalized.

As for those who don’t think the Olympics is worth it to a major television network, my programming source said:

From a programming perspective, Olympics still make ratings sense every two years. A reliable shot in the arm no matter how many or how few series hits are on the air. Financially, it’s a tougher call. Like the NFL, it needs to be at least a break-even proposition. Ultimately, that’s up to the IOC.

As per usual, NBC has been criticized for some of its Olympics coverage, including moving the USA-Canada hockey game to MSNBC. Of that dilemma, my source said:

Hockey is always a tough one. Rabid, passionate fans but limited numbers. Devoting an entire game (except for a gold medal game) on the broadcast network would result in lower ratings than the usual combination of more broadly popular sports.

NBC Sports should consider making one cable network the home of hockey. All the hockey games and all the analysis in one place to serve this reliable but not huge segment.

Takeaway from all this? Expect NBC to be out front in the bidding for future Olympics. At least while Ebersol remains in control, and it appears that will be the case when the merger with Comcast is consummated.

ESPN and the Olympics? Very little chance. Shame, as we’d all love to see Greenberg and Golic suiting up for the luge.