ESPN To Make Olympics Play: Bodenheimer

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NEW YORK--Expect ESPN to be in the game for the 2014 and 2016 Games.

ESPN chief George Bodenheimer said ESPN/ABC will be in on the bidding process for the 2014 Winter Games and 2016 Summer Games, when the International Olympic Committee begins the auction process over the next year.

Bodenheimer, speaking at kickoff media event here for the Monday Night Football franchise, said ESPN/ABC was “very interested” in the future Olympics rights, although he cautioned that it “still has to make business sense” for the sports giant to make a bid.

Bodenheimer -- who noted that ESPN already has a relationship with the IOC through the company’s coverage of the Games on its Brazilian networks and through its bid on the last round of U.S. TV rights -- gave thumbs up to NBC’s multiplatform presentation of the Beijing Olympics, as it mirrors the multiplatform tack ESPN embarked on more than a decade ago.

“It validates the belief we had 10 years ago or more that sports fans are not just enjoying sports on television,” Bodenheimer said.

Bidding for the 2014 Games from Sochi, Russia and the 2016 Summer Olympics will likely unfold over the next six to nine months, according to ESPN officials. A firm deadline is expected by October 2009, when the IOC determines whether Rio de Janiero, Madrid, Tokyo or Chicago will host the 2016 Games.

Given NBC Universal’s ratings and digital-media success with the current Games, which held an $894 million rights fee, the bidding will likely surpass the $1 billion mark, a floor ESPN is bracing for.

“If I was holding the auction, I would definitely want to hold it after this Olympics,” said ESPN vice president of content John Skipper.

In addition to ESPN/ABC, News Corp. and CBS could join NBCU, which holds the U.S. rights to the 2010 Games in Vancouver and 2012 Olympics in London, in bidding for the 2014 and 2016 quadrennial events.

ESPN officials said the IOC has assured them that the incumbent does not hold the right for first negotiations and there will not be preemptive bidding for the package.

If ESPN/ABC were to secure the rights to the future Games, it would proceed differently than NBCU has in at least one regard: West Coast residents would not be held back from viewing top events like NBC did with Michael Phelps’s record-breaking swims until primetime arrived in the Pacific time zone.  

“We would never put an event on tape delay. When we put 'live' on the screen, we mean 'live right now.' We don't mean live three hours ago,” said Skipper.

He said “the unnecessary manipulation” of events for ratings purposes is a disservice to sports fans, who expect information as soon as events occur. “You can cume an audience anytime, whether during the day or overnight.”

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