Summer Prep for Winter Olympics

Sochi Games Now Less Than Six Months Away

With the 2014 Winter Olympic Games now less than six months away, the competition for athletes to make the various U.S. teams will heat up this fall with Olympic trials and various international competitions.

U.S. rightsholder NBC Sports Group unveiled its coverage plans for speed skating, while Universal Sports will present key alpine skiing, bobsled and ice skating competitions.

NBC will begin its coverage of the Sochi Games on Thursday, Feb. 6, as the International Olympic Committee has added 12 events, including team figure skating and men’s and women’s slopestyle snowboarding. After the company lost $223 million on the Vancouver Olympic in 2010 amidst a shaky economy, NBC Sports Group chairman Mark Lazarus has indicated that he expects the Winter Olympics along the Black Sea to finish in the black.

The rights fee for Sochi is $775 million, and marks the first of the four Olympics that the Comcast-owned NBC Sports Group has committed $4.38 billion to under Comcast’s watch. NBCUniversal, then owned by General Electric, paid $820 million in rights for the Vancouver Games.

Any concerns about the nine-hour difference between the U.S. East Coast and Russia serving as a sales impediment proved to be unfounded, as Seth Winter, executive vice president sales and marketing for NBC Sports Group, projected ad sales would eclipse the $800 million mark, surpassing the record $700 million NBC earned in Vancouver.

Primetime coverage of the 2010 Games averaged 24.4 million viewers on NBC, a 21% advance from the 20.2 million the broadcaster averaged with the Torino Games in 2006. All told, Vancouver attracted 190 million to NBCU’s varied channels, making it the second most-watched Winter Olympics in history, behind the 204 million on CBS for Lillehammer in 1994, which was fueled by Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan contretemps.

Although specific TV and digital schedules have not been unveiled, NBC will deploy a similar strategy from London, meaning, in a first for a Winter Games, every event from Sochi will be carried live on some platform, mostly via streaming.

As expected, the National Hockey League and its players reached an agreement to participate in the Sochi Games. That could prove a boon to viewing: Canada’s 3-2 overtime win over the U.S. averaged 27.6 million viewers, the largest hockey audience in this nation since the 1980 “Miracle on Ice Olympics” in Lake Placid. NBC Sports Group holds NHL rights.

Apolo Anto Ohno — who retired from short-track speed skating as the most-decorated Winter Olympian in U.S. history, with eight medals over three Olympic Winter Games — will serve as an analyst for NBC’s coverage of speed skating, while also working on features and offering studio commentary. Al Michaels will host daytime Winter Olympics coverage on NBC Sports Network (weekdays) and NBC (weekends), marking his third consecutive Olympics for NBC Sports Group after serving as host of NBC’s weekend and weekday daytime coverage from London and Vancouver.

Universal Sports, which is being launched on Time Warner Cable systems later this month and on its TV Everywhere platforms in September, will be very active in the months ahead, even though it won’t have any actual coverage from Sochi. A joint venture of InterMedia Partners and NBCUniversal, Universal Sports will launch Countdown to Sochi on Oct. 30.