Comcast Takes Aim at Sports-TV Crown

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Talk about adding a major player to your roster: Should Comcast Corp. succeed in its acquisition of The Walt Disney Co., the top U.S. cable operator could become the biggest player in the world of sports.

“If the deal goes through, Comcast/Disney would become the dominant player in sports TV,” said Neal Pilson, principal of sports consultancy Pilson Communications and the former head of CBS Sports. “They would combine ESPN and ABC Sports, with the strength of Comcast's 22 million cable homes and the regional sports business that they growing. It would give them tremendous leverage with all of the major sports.”

That clout would manifest both nationally and in regional rights negotiations.

John Mansell, sports analyst for Paul Kagan Associates, noted the example of working with college conferences. Comcast/Disney could secure national exposures for ESPN and ESPN2, while syndicated rights could be funneled to regional sports services, along with other backdrop programming. “It would really be a case of soup to nuts,” said Mansell.

Comcast already has a taste for the regional sports business. It owns networks that serve Philadelphia, Washington/Baltimore and the Southeast, and is poised to launch one in Chicago this fall.

Comcast has also been said to have an eye on the RSNs operated by Cablevision Systems Corp.'s Rainbow Sports, as well as certain Fox Sports Net services in markets like Seattle, where Comcast is the dominant cable player.

Mansell pointed to Denver, where Kroenke Sports is looking to start a new regional armed with games from the National Basketball Association's Denver Nuggets and the National Hockey League's Colorado Avalanche.

“Kroenke obviously needs Comcast for distribution,” he said. “Maybe [Comcast] becomes a [ownership] partner, or they don't get carriage.”

An even more complete menu could be offered if Comcast/Disney were to further expand into franchise and venue ownership.

“In the sense that they might want to digitally insert a credit card advertiser's logo onto the field, or offer interactive applications or more [HDTV] features, it becomes a lot easier contractually when you don't have to cut separate deals with all the potentially different rightsholders,” Mansell said.

Pilson said video-on-demand could also be a big play. “VOD hasn't grown as fast as some expected. But with access to a quarter of the nation's cable home, and having the ability to offer national sports on a VOD basis, it could give Comcast a distinct advantage.”

Comcast, which holds The Golf Channel, currently owns the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers and the NHL's Philadelphia Flyers as well as the Wachovia Center, where the teams play. Disney owns the NHL's Anaheim Mighty Ducks; hockey's bylaws prohibit ownership of two clubs.

Currently, ESPN holds the rights to all four major pro sports in this country — the National Football League, NBA, Major League Baseball and the NHL.

Disney's primetime NFL legacy, as well as Comcast's interest in the out-of-market Sunday Ticket pay-per-view package, would likely keep ABC and ESPN away from any afternoon pro football package.

“I think Sunday afternoon has to remain with broadcast, and I don't see ABC going there,” said Pilson, adding he has no doubts the NFL will be on digital cable after the current contracts expire after the 2005 season.

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