NBC-Comcast will be power in sports
By RONALD BLUM
NEW YORK — Except for the Olympics, the NBC peacock has largely faded from the forefront of the broadcast sports scene lately.
Now with the pending merger of NBC and Comcast, that figures to change — slowly.
A combined NBC-Comcast could compete for more NFL coverage, regain Major League Baseball and the NBA, and fight to maintain its exclusive deal for U.S. rights to the Olympics.
"I think this is a watershed deal in the history of the broadcast industry," said former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson, now a television consultant. "It's the biggest thing that's happened in my 40 years in broadcasting. No question."
When Comcast Corp. gains majority control in NBC Universal, it will meld NBC into a company that already owns 11 regional sports networks, The Golf Channel and Versus, and also has minority interests in the MLB Network and iNDemand.
NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol will transform from cash-starved executive back to a sports tycoon, backed with the monthly cash from Comcast's 24 million cable television subscribers.
"You're going to see a lot of money come into sports that's not been put in there by GE over the last few years," said former YES Network head Leo Hindery. "In recent years they have let everything pretty much drift away."
Ebersol will have the ability to compete for any sports rights that become available, making the new venture a likely competitor with ESPN, which is owned by The Walt Disney Co.
Given the complexity of mergers and the timetable for rights to come back on the market, however, it will take years for the new entity to take shape.
"Look, I'm not going to talk about ESPN," Comcast chairman Brian Roberts said. "They have a fantastic business, and sports has proved to be a very profitable category. And almost in every space, there's more than one participant."
Ebersol and ESPN have declined comment on the merger, not wanting to say anything during the period of limbo between the Dec. 3 announcement and the closing, which needs shareholder and regulatory approval.
NBC was once a leader in sports television, but it hasn't televised baseball since 2000, the NBA since 2002 and NASCAR since 2006.
After losing its rights to the NFL's AFC package in 1998, it picked up the league's Sunday night deal starting in 2006 and rejoined the Super Bowl rotation. It also has televised the NHL since 2005-06, along with Versus, and has retained rights to Notre Dame home football games since 1991.
NBC also had a schedule of 26 golf tournaments this year, including the U.S. Open, and has held onto two tennis tournaments, televising Wimbledon since 1969 and the French Open since 1981.
The merger will put the NHL's national rights under one company.
"I think the potential is exciting for all hockey fans," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. "In marketing, promotions, scheduling, from our standpoint these important relationships can only be a plus."
The combined company also owns a large swath of local broadcasting rights for teams through regional networks in Atlanta-Southeast; Boston-New England; Chicago; Houston-Southwest; Denver-Mountain West; New York; Philadelphia; Portland, Ore.-Pacific Northwest; the San Francisco Bay area; and Washington, D.C.
That in the future could lead to increased flexibility in shifting games between national and local coverage on shorter notice based on teams' success and popularity. That could start with the NHL and expand to other sports if NBC-Comcast gains national rights.
While NBC has pulled back from team sports, it has concentrated its money on the Olympics, broadcasting every Summer Games since 1988 and every Winter Games since 2002.
NBC-COMCAST SPORTS HOLDINGS
Networks with sports programming that would be part of a combined NBC Universal-Comcast Corp.:
The Golf Channel
Potential Olympic programming cable networks:
Comcast SportsNet Bay Area (San Francisco)
Comcast SportsNet California (San Francisco)
Comcast SportsNet Chicago
Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic (Washington, D.C.)
Comcast SportsNet New England (Boston)
Comcast SportsNet Northwest (Portland, Ore.)
Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia
Comcast Sports SouthWest (Houston)
CSS (Comcast/Charter Sports Southeast) (Atlanta)
SNY (SportsNet New York)
The Mtn. (Mountain West Sports Network) (Denver)