Ebersol Exit: Games Changer


Jacques Rogge can’t be joyous.

The president of the International Olympics Committee will entertain U.S. rights bidders for the 2014 and 2016 Games in Lausanne, Switzerland on June 6-7. But the Comcast/NBC Universal contingent will not include the American Olympics champion, Dick Ebersol.

The acclaimed producer and a member of the Olympic Order, bestowed by the IOC for his contributions to the Olympic Movement, resigned as chairman of the NBC Sports Group on May 18 after he could not reach a contract extension with his new boss at NBC Universal Steve Burke. The split comes just three months after Comcast officially gained control of programmer and just weeks before the rights auction. Although Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, Mark Lazarus, Ebersol’s successor at NBC Sports Group, and others will be making the Swiss trip, the man who turned the Peacock into “America’s Olympic Network,” won’t be on the flight.

Rogge told the Associated Press that he spoke with Roberts, Burke and NBC Olympics president Gary Zenkel via phone after news of Ebersol’s resignation. “The three reiterated the full support of NBC/Comcast for the Olympic movement and the Olympic Games,” Rogge said. “They said they would come for the bidding. They made it very clear that the resignation of Dick had absolutely nothing to do with the bidding. They have reiterated that they were very committed to participating in full at the bidding.”

Saying and actually playing can be two different things. In April, NBC and Versus combined on a $2 billion, 10-year rights deal with the NHL. However earlier this month, the pair’s reported $225 million annual bid for Pac-12 rights was outflanked by a combined $3 billion, 12-year gambit from ESPN and Fox. One could argue that $2 billion-plus outlay needs to find a home.

Roberts’ No. 2 Burke, now heading the Comcast-controlled joint venture, speaking on the company’s first-quarter earnings call with analysts, discussed a disciplined approach to spending on big-time sports, emphasizing “NPVs,” not gold, silver or bronze.

“There will be instances where we get deals and renew deals as was the case recently with hockey,” Burke said of the recent renewal of NHL games for its Versus cable channel. “There will be instances where we go as far as we feel we should go and someone else get the rights, which appears to be the case with the Pac 12. As it relates to the Olympics or the NFL, we think those are two fantastic properties and would love to have them, but would like to make money. There are a variety of ways you can make money — advertising or investing in a cable channel that would allow you to have increased advertising or increased affiliate fees. We’re not going to do anything that doesn’t have a business plan that pencils out to a positive NPV [Net Present Value].”

But with ESPN and Fox also having expressed interest in gaining the rights to the Winter Games in Socchi, Russia in 2014 and the Summer Games in 2016, the IOC is eyeing at least the $2.2 billion NBC paid for the rights to the Vancouver Winter Games in 2010 and the upcoming Summer quadrennial in London next year. That total included a $200 million TOP sponsorship from General Electric.

There has also been talk about a package that could also encompass the 2018 and 2020 Games, the host cities to which have not yet been determined. Such a quad play harkens back to 1995, when Ebersol and NBC that August scored the rithe 2000 Summer Games in Sydney and the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, which marked the first time consecutive rights to the quadrennial sporting events were awarded simultaneously. Later that year, he executed a triplecast, er triple play, gaining exclusive media rights for the 2004, 2006 and 2008 Games, making NBC the first network to present five Olympics in a row, a skein that will reach seven in London.

Will Comcast open its wallet during this high-stakes game of poker for the Games, especially without their foremost U.S. advocate playing the hand? Does Comcast lose its inherited incumbent’s edge sans Ebersol? Will Ebersol rival, Fox Sports chairman David Hill, gain the Games for News Corp. boss Rupert Murdoch and further stoke FX’s reentry into the sports game? Does any of this really matter, if ESPN elects to unload its vast financial arsenal? It’s one steeled by subscriber fees exceeding $4.50 per month and perhaps topped by a TOP sponsorship that could festoon Mickey Mouse, Buzz Lightyear and Lightning McQueen in Rings gear around the globe.

On first blush, Ebersol’s absence –he’s actually sticking around until the end of June — would seem to put NBCU at a disadvantage in Switzerland. But Comcast, with enough green, could earn Games gold that could be a nice win ahead of NBCU’s first primetime schedule, which is being fortified by an additional $200 million in program spending, under Burke’s watch.

A Games get would be big and coupled with a resolution to the NFL labor situation, Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis will give NBC the most-watched show of 2012 — and perhaps all-time — provided pro pigskin fans prove to be a forgiving lot. Those could be nice trophies if NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt’s slate — Burke himself said on the aforementioned conference call the primetime turnaround could take a few years — fails to make any progress from the Peacock’s fourth-place entrenchment.