Beijing 2022 Olympics Ratings Roundup

I can’t believe I’m doing this again. I set a goal for me to actually do something productive that might actually make me some money this year, and had a bunch of projects lined up to do over the next few months, and I allowed myself to get sucked in to something that could chew up a lot of time for not much reward. To make matters worse I’m doing it in Google Sheets in the hopes I might be able to share the spreadsheet directly at some point for people to explore the charts on their own, but at the moment it just means it’s a massive memory hog.

But hey, ShowBuzz Daily seems to be more comprehensive than any source I used when doing this in the past, recording viewers and 18-49 ratings for the top 150 original cable programs of each day in the demo, deeper than any source I’ve used in the past that wasn’t restricted to certain networks, as well as viewers, 18-49 viewers, and household ratings for any event at any time on any network (except for ESPNU and a few other, quirky networks), giving me timelier and more complete coverage of daytime sports events on broadcast networks than I’ve ever had before. It’s already had one shutdown scare, but it at least allows me to provide more comprehensive Olympics ratings coverage than the last time I tried this.

Whether or not these numbers are meaningful outside of NBC is another question. In both Tokyo and Beijing NBC opted to have USA present round-the-clock 24/7 coverage, not even interrupted by WWE Monday Night Raw in the case of Beijing (but occasionally interrupted by Premier League coverage). This means there aren’t necessarily any logical “windows” to report ratings for, and how NBC actually did divide the windows for ratings purposes doesn’t necessarily make any sense. NBC had USA’s primetime window align with NBC’s primetime window, and the late-night “Prime Plus” window align with local news and “Prime Plus” on NBC, even if the resulting cutoffs were in the middle of live event coverage. I can sort of see the logic behind that, and I can even see the logic of setting a hard cutoff at 8 AM ET, usually the time when a hockey game would be starting, but the window starting at that time would usually go for six hours, meaning it would be split roughly evenly between live coverage and a few hours of delayed re-airs. I don’t see how that makes sense even from a selling-to-advertisers perspective; few would be watching consistently for that long, and a live hockey game is likely to draw a different audience from taped coverage.

Regardless, this is my attempt to make sense of what was reported on ShowBuzz Daily. This is a list of every window reported there with viewership of over 500,000. Click here to learn more about how to read the charts, but note that that page is now woefully outdated. 

Read moreBeijing 2022 Olympics Ratings Roundup

How NBC Gets the Olympics Exactly Backwards

Another Olympics has come and gone, and with it another round of hand-wringing over NBC’s tape-delay policy, fueled further this time around by NBC’s historically low ratings for its primetime coverage. NBC’s primetime coverage averaged a 14.4 household rating, dominant over the rest of TV but the second-lowest mark for a Summer Games since at least 1968 and probably ever, beating only Sydney in 2000, with declines especially acute among key young-adult advertising demographics. People are still trying to figure out the reasons for the low ratings, especially since everyone expected numbers much closer to London (the highest-rated non-North American Summer Olympics since 1972), but plenty of wags on the Internet and among sportswriters are pointing the finger at NBC’s long-standing and woefully outdated policy of tape-delaying the marquee events for primetime. This, of course, despite the fact that Rio is only an hour off of the East Coast and many events, including the marquee track and swimming events, aired live in primetime, meaning if anything NBC is likely to come to the conclusion that the Games suffered because they were live, not because they were taped. London had no events live in primetime, while NBC pulled strings to get Michael Phelps’ chase for gold into the morning time slot in Beijing, putting it in primetime on the East Coast. The result: London’s completely taped coverage beat Beijing’s mostly-taped coverage, which beat Rio’s mostly-live coverage. It sure looks like tape delay helps NBC’s ratings rather than hurts them, no matter how much people on social media may whine about it.

Further fueling this attitude is the popularity of the Olympics on the West Coast, where even NBC’s live primetime coverage is delayed, and thus where the whining about tape delays reached a fever pitch, but which is perennially the region where the Olympics are most popular, something NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus pointed out. But the dominance of the West Coast is not what it used to be; Salt Lake City and Denver were the top two markets, but San Diego was the only other market in the Pacific or Mountain time zones to crack the top 20. In Beijing, those three markets were joined by Portland in the top 10, and at least in the first week (when Phelps raced), four more West Coast markets placed in the top 17 with higher-than-average ratings, including every West Coast market in the top 40 except for Seattle (which gets the CBC’s live coverage on our cable systems). Had that held, it would seem to suggest that, even holding the time slot and specific games constant, tape delay only improves ratings. Instead, it raises the question of whether the West Coast, and indirectly audiences in general, really are souring on tape-delayed Olympics coverage.

Of course, since 2012 NBC has allowed people to stream almost all the events live regardless of where they live, albeit with the Olympic international feed’s announcers, and NBC claims that when streaming and cable are added in (for the first time ever, NBCSN and Bravo aired coverage in primetime that cannibalized some of NBC’s audience), the Rio Games trailed only London as the second-most watched ever. Streaming, however, remains only a teeny-tiny subset of total viewing, with the total amount of streaming for the entire games accounting for as much consumption as an hour 45 minutes of NBC’s primetime coverage.

But even though live sports streaming in general has a fraction of the popularity of viewing sports on linear TV, that only gets to the real problem with NBC’s “Olympics as ultimate reality show” approach, namely that it treats the Olympics as a type of programming that is slowly losing its relevance to linear television. Indeed, as “cord-cutting” increasingly emphasizes being able to watch what you want when you want, leaving live events as the sole area where linear television retains a purpose in the face of the rise of the Internet, NBC’s approach of streaming the Games live and delaying events to be neatly packaged for its linear network seems to be exactly backwards. As I’ve said before, streaming is not and may never be well-suited for airing major live sports events, and while complaints about Olympic streaming seemed to be more about the experience of getting through NBC’s authentication and its insistence on delaying the Opening Ceremony even on the stream than the sluggishness experienced in London, if NBC continues to insist on streaming as the only guaranteed method of watching marquee events live, it will only put themselves under more and more strain, or alternately greatly increase the cost of delivering the Games smoothly, as streaming becomes more normalized as a means of watching content. On the other hand, it’s disingenuous for NBC to insist on packaging the marquee events for showing when everyone is at home and then require that those events be shown at the same time for everyone even when they’re not live; after all, not everyone has a 9-to-5 job where primetime is the most convenient time to watch the Games. There is a place for recorded, prearranged programming on linear television, but that place is heavily reliant on social media, and social media was disproportionately represented by those that didn’t like NBC’s current strategy.

By the end of NBC’s current contract running through 2032, I could see NBC’s linear channel(s) (assuming it still exists as such) sticking strictly to airing the marquee events live, while also offering its traditional packaged coverage for streaming online whenever someone wants to start it for those who want the Olympics as “ultimate reality show”. That NBC does not do this already, instead forcing both the sports and reality fans to watch tape-delayed, packaged coverage at a specific time in order to maximize ratings for that specific time and sell ads at the highest price, is a sign both of how far streaming has yet to go to achieve normalcy, and a sign of how slowly linear television is embracing its true nature and the key to its future.

TGTSTG Bonus Content: How Comcast Went from Cable Company to Sports Power

As promised, this week I’ll be posting supplementary material consisting of content excised from the book before publication or that I just didn’t have time to write before getting the book out the door, as we prepare for the book’s availability in paperback. This week I’ll try to have one outtake from each chapter from 2 to 8, in order; in coming weeks I hope to have further outtakes ready, some on topics that didn’t fit the structure of the book.

Though his father Ralph may have been the founder of Comcast, Brian Roberts was not groomed to take over the company at an early age – though not for lack of his trying. The elder Roberts attempted to gently steer his son away from the business, but Brian remained persistent and began working for Comcast full-time in 1981, shortly after graduating from his father’s alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Finance. It took a decade for him to prove himself to the point of being named the heir apparent in 1990, when he became president of the company.

Both before and after that point, Roberts found time to pursue his other passion: squash. An All-American at the sport, Roberts helped lead the United States to silver medals at the Maccabiah Games in 1981, 1985, 1997, and 2009, winning the whole thing in 2005. As my book chronicles, sports was a big driver for the cable industry from the beginning, even before the launch of ESPN, with boxing on HBO and Braves games on TBS, and many cable companies had interests in regional sports networks and other sports programming interests. But during the late 90s and early 2000s, as cable companies such as TCI and Cablevision surrendered their RSNs to Fox and as they chafed under ESPN’s post-1998 rate increases, Comcast under Roberts’ leadership set out to build its own sports empire that would make it as much a beneficiary of the latter-day sports boom as a victim.

During the decade from Brian Roberts’ ascension to the president spot in 1990 to when his father transferred him his voting stock in 2000, Comcast was involved in the launches of Speedvision, the Outdoor Life Network, and the Golf Channel, and acquired the Philadelphia Flyers and 76ers in 1996 to launch its own Philadelphia-area RSN along with the Phillies, soon acquiring a second RSN in Home Team Sports in the Washington, DC area. As chronicled in Chapter 6 of the book, after Roberts spearheaded the acquisition of AT&T Broadband, Comcast set out to expand its RSN empire by selling stakes in its RSNs to teams, using the template laid out by YES Network to its advantage. But Comcast had its eyes on a far bigger prize.

In 2004, with Disney CEO Michael Eisner under fire for questionable performance and decision-making, Comcast launched a hostile takeover bid of the company worth $54 billion in stock and assuming nearly $12 billion of Disney’s debt, with ESPN, whose agreement with Comcast was slated to expire the following year, widely figured to be a key motivator of the deal. But the offer popped Disney’s stock price above what Comcast’s offer valued it at, Comcast refused to raise its offer, and less than three months later the offer was withdrawn.

Rebuffed in its attempt to own ESPN, Comcast began to focus on competing with it. Comcast held talks with the NFL about forming a new sports network, possibly in combination with other cable companies, or putting NFL games on OLN, and the NFL hadn’t yet decided to put its Thursday night package on its own network – and Comcast was considered the favorite among non-league bidders – when the NHL fell into Comcast’s lap. Though the casual sports fan may have scoffed at the notion of the NHL moving to the Outdoor Life Network, Comcast had already been talking about transitioning OLN into a general sports network, potentially competing with ESPN, and while there were few paying attention to the sports television business at the time that weren’t in that business, those that were had at least an inkling of Comcast’s plans.

By 2009, though, any dreams of OLN, now Versus, competing with ESPN had become a distant memory. At least publicly, Versus President Jamie Davis disclaimed any notion of trying to compete with ESPN, instead focusing on “super-serving” fans of those sports Versus held the rights to. Though Comcast had never been as bombastic about competing with ESPN as Fox would be, nonetheless Comcast had learned firsthand how difficult it could be, especially after failing to get NFL or (in 2006) MLB rights.

NBC Universal was a prime target for another takeover attempt. It was never particularly on-brand for owner General Electric, with most other broadcast and cable networks owned by companies focused on being media conglomerates, and 2009 seemed like a particularly ripe time for GE to get out of the media business. It was the aftermath of the BCS deal, broadcast advertising had been battered in the Great Recession, and the retransmission consent market had not yet heated up. NBC in particular had become a laughingstock, mired in last place for years and going through the Jay Leno Show fiasco, and the Universal movie studio wasn’t much better. Cable networks, though, backed by the stability of their subscription fee revenue streams, were thriving, with NBC Universal’s outlets like USA, SyFy, and MSNBC gaining in viewership. By most accounts, it was those cable networks, which would give Comcast control over more of the content it would deliver over its pipes, that was Roberts’ main target when he set out to acquire NBC Universal, with the broadcast network being heavily de-emphasized and potentially spun off if regulators put up objections strenuous enough to seeing one of the Big Four broadcast networks owned by over-the-air broadcasting’s nominal competitor.

But for those in the sports field, it was NBC’s broadcast operation and its bucket of sports rights, led by the legendary Dick Ebersol, that seemed to be the most valuable part of the deal. Ebersol’s expertise at producing top-notch productions of big events, especially the Olympics, would raise the quality and prestige of Comcast’s sports operations, and NBC would both be able to share its existing sports rights with Versus and provide much-needed muscle, and an attractive broadcast outlet, to acquire higher-profile rights for the network, while Comcast could integrate its regional sports networks in Chicago, Philadelphia, the Bay Area, and Washington, DC with NBC’s owned-and-operated stations in those markets. In turn, having an all-sports cable outlet and its subscription fees would in turn help NBC acquire rights it might not otherwise be able to score; Ebersol made comments both before and after the deal closed suggesting he had long looked wistfully at ESPN’s subscriber-fee income and welcomed the opportunity to play with a sports network that could take advantage of it. For many, a merger would create the most credible competitor to ESPN yet, at least until Fox’s Fox Sports 1 plans came to light. Just how valuable sports really was to Comcast in making the deal became apparent shortly after the deal closed in early 2011, when Ebersol began making sweeping changes to both sides of the newly-formed NBC Sports Group, including promising a name change for Versus – it would eventually become the NBC Sports Network, leaving no doubt as to the impact the merger had on Comcast’s sports operations – and re-branding NBC’s golf coverage as “Golf Channel on NBC”, much as ABC’s sports operations had become “ESPN on ABC”.

But barely four months after the deal closed, and less than three weeks before the International Olympic Committee was set to accept bids for Ebersol’s beloved Olympics, Ebersol abruptly resigned after he and Comcast were unable to reach terms on a contract extension and following much friction between Ebersol and Comcast, especially over how much they were willing to pay for sports rights, in the interim. Without Ebersol and his passion for the Olympics and relationships with the IOC, it was widely believed Comcast would be less willing to bid as much for an Olympic contract, especially given how much money the last contract was losing, and ESPN and Fox smelled a golden opportunity to steal the Games. CBS and Turner, which had previously met with the IOC but had little interest, even started talking about making a joint bid, though didn’t make the trip to Lausanne, Switzerland. The IOC had told bidders it expected to at least match the $2 billion NBC had paid for 2010 and 2012, but with NBC’s losses and Comcast expected to be more responsible, ESPN and Fox prepared to give the IOC lowball offers.

Three days after Ebersol’s resignation, Roberts and Steve Burke, the man he’d installed at the head of NBC Universal, as well as Mark Lazarus, Ebersol’s replacement, met with the people that had been working on NBC’s presentation to the IOC. The executives sat through the presentation that had been prepared and listened to the employees tell them what the Olympics meant to them and to NBC. By the end of the meeting, the employees were fully reassured of Comcast’s commitment to the Games.

The final presentation included a video of NBC employees talking about their Olympic memories and what the Games meant to them, which had IOC officials tearing up. It had also, apparently, moved Comcast executives. When the sealed bids were opened, ESPN and Fox offered up bids in the $1.4-1.5 billion range for two Olympics, not much higher than Fox’s bid from last time, which had IOC officials wondering whether Fox was even serious about pursuing the property. Comcast, on the other hand, bid nearly $2.4 billion. The IOC also gave networks the option of bidding on four Games, an option ESPN didn’t even take; Fox bid $3.4 billion for that package, but NBC paid a billion more than that in the bid the IOC ended up taking.

Comcast would end up bringing back Ebersol for the 2012 Games in an advisory capacity, and unexpectedly announced a stunning, no-bid 12-year extension of their agreement in 2014, ensuring NBC and Comcast will continue delivering the Games into American households into the 2030s. But other than the Premier League and a brief, two-year spell with MLS, NBC has acquired few other sporting events it didn’t already have the rights to before the merger; ESPN and Fox beginning to tag-team on sports rights made Comcast’s climb even more uphill than it was already, and the advent of Fox Sports 1 meant a more attractive alternative to ESPN for sports leagues. There are still hopes for NBCSN to acquire the NFL’s Thursday Night Football package, but they have become increasingly distant since the NFL’s broadcast-centric negotiations awarded it to CBS in 2014. NBC knows just how hard it is for them to compete with ESPN for sports rights. But at the very least, they’ve ensured that Comcast has some sports muscle of its own to flex with other cable operators.

Sochi 2014 Olympics Ratings Roundup

So, you know those Year in Review Sports Ratings Roundup posts I try to do and in fact did last year? Yeeeaaah, turns out I can only do them in odd-numbered years. While the Olympic primetime windows get all the glamor and attention, NBC’s afternoon and late night windows attract many millions of viewers as well, and SportsBusiness Daily only reports numbers for them for the weekend (and the Friday night late night window). I’d like to think the weekday windows have substantially smaller audiences than the weekend windows, especially in daytime, but I have no idea what numbers are normal for them; at best I could assume they’d do no better than eight million viewers but the ratings declines the Sochi games experienced as they went along makes any sort of estimation difficult, and the real number range could be upwards of 9M. There’s not much point in doing more than the Top Live Events list at that point.

Besides those NBC windows, I’m also missing several USA windows, especially from the second week, solely because Son of the Bronx didn’t normally cover that network when his blog was going. He did post a general “ratings recap” post on TV Media Insights, but seemed to abandon it in the second week, and doesn’t seem to have been able to do much to close the NBC gaps. The first chart below contains all the NBC numbers I know about, plus two subsets of the NBCSN coverage NBC broke out in early press releases for context. The second chart contains all the cable windows I know about. Click here to learn more about how to read the charts.

Read moreSochi 2014 Olympics Ratings Roundup

The past and future of the Olympics

Once, the Olympics were considered among the most pure of sports events, because of its tradition of amateurism. But today, years after it was abandoned, its past of amateurism is holding the Games back.

For the Olympics to be for amateurs only seemed natural in the early 20th century as the Games and the Olympic movement grew. But the prohibition on professionalism meant that FIFA had to create a separate World Cup if it wanted an international Olympic-type tournament. Today, the World Cup is arguably bigger than the Olympics and the Olympic football tournament is restricted to keep from competing with it.

The Olympic notion of amateurism was probably sustained well past its sell-by date by global geopolitics; the Cold War turned the Olympics into a point of intense patriotic pride regardless of who was competing. By the time the Cold War was over, the IOC had already dropped the professionalism requirement, setting up the 1992 Dream Team. Today, the Olympic basketball tournament is one of the biggest parts of the Olympics, indeed of the whole basketball calendar, and the hockey tournament positively dominates the Winter Games… yet David Stern wants to make the basketball tournament under-23 only and push FIBA’s Basketball World Cup as the new standard of international basketball competition, and NHL players might not participate in Sochi either.

Had the Olympics allowed professionals from the start, or at least in the 1920s, there would have been no need for a separate soccer tournament. The Olympic tournament could have filled the bill quite nicely. Without the World Cup? David Stern and the NHL wouldn’t even be thinking of dropping out of the Olympics. The Olympics would be the great nexus of international competition, which you don’t mess with unless you have a very good reason. I’m not even sure the Olympics would have dropped baseball; Bud Selig would have interrupted the season in a heartbeat to get major league players in the Games, because any sport would kill to have an Olympic tournament. With all these sports playing prominent roles, Americans might not even have to suffer through tape delays.

Instead? The Olympics could become the place for sports that aren’t popular enough outside it to have their own tournaments worth paying attention to. An Olympic soccer tournament with all the players participating might completely dominate the Games and push all other sports to the background, but those sports are more insidiously denigrated by the fact that soccer, and maybe basketball and hockey, are too cool for them.

At one point, I was thinking that if the Olympic basketball tournament became an under-23 affair, I would consider the Olympic Games mostly dead to me and push the notion of a “Pseudolympic Games”, consisting of all those tournaments in the off year between Olympic Games in Olympic-eligible sports that mostly exist because of the Olympic amateurism requirement or the popularity of the World Cup. But the Basketball World Cup might move a year later – funnily enough, to get away from the soccer World Cup – and to encompass the entire four-year Olympiad would result in complications, since the more traditionally-“Olympic” sports tend to have tournaments in every odd-numbered year. But every time a sport declares themselves too cool for the Olympics, I will sigh and observe that the ghosts of Pierre de Coubertin and 19th-century aristocratic notions of the gentleman still haunt the Olympic Movement.

Tying a bow on the Canadian Olympic rights negotiations

Canada’s long national nightmare is over. CBC will be sole broadcaster of the 2014 and 2016 Olympic Games.

You may recall how acrimonious the prior negotiations with the IOC were, with CBC’s union with Bell the sole bidders and far apart from what the IOC wanted, raising the specter of Canadians having to watch the Games on NBC or on the Internet. One of the bigger hang-ups – whether NHL players would be in Sochi – hasn’t been resolved yet, so I can’t help but wonder what changed to get the deal done.

I’d like to see some numbers on how much CBC paid. Did the IOC look at the landscape and realize the bleak future facing the Games in Canada if they didn’t take CBC’s offer? Did the IOC see that CBC was paying less than the combined bid and attempt to save face by lowering their demand down to the level of the combined bid? Did CBC realize the PR hit both sides were getting in Canada (and, possibly, see the ratings for the 2012 Games) and up the ante to make sure the Games could be seen on a normal platform?

Regardless, Canada has dodged a bullet, and combined with the complaints of poor quality for NBC’s streaming of big events (which the IOC may also have been looking at when considering a potential Yahoo bid), it’s a sign that we’re probably still at least a decade away from streaming being the norm for viewing sports.

NBC Renews Relationship with Tour de France

Been a long time since we last looked at the national sports TV wars, though does it count as “renewing” it when the broadcast contract belonged to CBS only two years ago and they inherited what they did get from the former Versus? Still, say what you will about the NHL, but Comcast’s rise to challenge ESPN for sports supremacy really got started when Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France-winning ways fell in the lap of a little outfit called the Outdoor Life Network. Now NBCSN and NBC will continue airing the Tour de France for another decade. (They’re also boasting about airing live stages on the NBC broadcast network starting this year, but I thought they did that last year too? In any case, you can bet ESPN wouldn’t be putting live stages on ABC…)

The bigger story, though, may be the break-up between CBC and Bell, who had teamed up to be the only serious contender for Canadian Olympic rights past 2012. Worse, Bell – owners of Canada’s only other all-sports network – has joined Rogers in saying it’s not interested in Olympic rights at all anymore. Does this mean CBC will have to try for the games on their own? Will Shaw, who owns one of Canada’s major broadcast networks but has no sports presence, step up? Will interest perk up if NHL players end up participating in the 2014 Games? Will Canadians have to watch the games from American coverage on NBC? Or could this open the door for Yahoo to put Canadian Olympic coverage on the Internet?

Sport-Specific Networks
6 10.5 4.5 3.5 0 1.5

Let the sports television wars begin!

Over the last few months, the first shots have been fired in a multi-million-dollar war for control over the sports television landscape.

For the past decade, if not the past two decades, ESPN has controlled this ground, at least on the cable side, leveraging its strong portfolio of rights across multiple sports to build the biggest brand in cable television. Sports is one of the few pieces of programming that attracts the most valuable viewers, and ESPN has used it to become the most profitable division of the Walt Disney Company and one of the most popular, well-known, and notorious brands in America, while extending its reach around the world. And ESPN’s dominance has meant that most sports need to play by ESPN’s rules or risk irrelevance.

Now others are eyeing ESPN’s turf. In fact, four of the other five major media companies have at least partially positioned themselves for their own piece of ESPN’s riches. All had some stake in the game before, but all have also attempted to set themselves up to become much more serious at the sports rights game, and ESPN only raised the stakes when it broached a whole new world in what’s possible on cable when it snagged the rights to the BCS. Comcast fired the first salvo by acquiring NBC Universal, expressing its intent to turn NBC Sports into an entity on par with ESPN. Others have made their own moves to keep up, with Fox expressing its intent to bring more sports back to FX and CBS rebranding the CBS College Sports Network to drop the “College”. Billions of dollars are at stake, and the major media companies want a piece of the action.

Playing this game comes at a price, and increased competition will mean increased rights fees, which is very bad news for sports on broadcast television – cable networks collect money from subscriber fees in addition to advertising, which broadcast hasn’t really branched into, “retransmission consent” fees collected by individual stations notwithstanding – and very good news for sports leagues and conferences. Yet it’s very possible they’ll play a significant portion of the game with none of the suitors, instead choosing to play it with themselves. Over the last decade, the league-owned network has become all the rage. All four traditional major professional leagues have their own networks, as well as two college conferences (with a third soon to join them), and while it’s common for such networks to be run or launched by the media companies (NBA TV is run by Turner, for example, and the Big Ten Network is run by Fox), it’s probably more the norm for leagues to keep their networks to themselves, as with the NFL Network.

There are five contenders to the sports programming prizes, each seeking to obtain as many of them as they can, with the ever-present specter that the leagues granting the prizes may choose none of them and keep them to themselves.

As the incumbent ruler of the roost, ESPN remains the best positioned of the bunch, but time will tell if it can keep its advantage. ESPN has just about everything the other contenders could ask for. “The ESPN family of networks” has no equal among the other contenders, and the jokes about “The Ocho” become less funny every day. ESPN boasts not one but two full-time sports networks seen by the vast majority of the country (the only ones of their kind), including what is for most the sports highlight show, plus a broadcast outlet (available in a pinch even if they sometimes seem to want to kill sports there), a college sports network (with rights most competitors would die for), a sports news network (also the only one of its kind), a Spanish-language network, a 3D network (also the only one of its kind, although other networks have produced 3D broadcasts), and just for good measure, a classic-sports network. Throw in a video-streaming service (further advanced than any other), a radio network, a network for mobile devices, heavy investment in international rights, and a virtual monopoly on college-sports syndication, and ESPN is basically a one-stop shop for anything a league could need.

But now Comcast’s merger with NBC Universal has sent the message that they intend to challenge ESPN for the throne. Certainly they seem to be the next-best positioned, being the only other contender with anything resembling the all-sports network ESPN represents, bringing two with the soon-to-be-rebranded Versus and Universal Sports, not to mention the sport-specific Golf Channel (whose brand is already appearing on golf broadcasts on NBC). The merger coupled all of this with a broadcast presence on NBC, and while they don’t have a Spanish-language sport-specific network, they do have a Spanish-language outlet with Telemundo and mun2. Comcast also has something ESPN doesn’t: a collection of regional sports networks, which builds a strong brand for them in local markets. They also benefit from synergy with their cable operations, something no other contender can boast.

But Versus still has a long way to go before they have the quality of sports contracts ESPN has, is well behind the other contenders online, NBC itself continues to struggle as a broadcast network, the closest thing they have to a college-sports network is the mtn., and the recent departure of Dick Ebersol cripples Comcast’s ability to pick up strong sports rights without one of the most respected names in sports broadcasting.

Potentially the wild card in this battle is Fox, the only other contender with a strong presence on both broadcast and cable. Fox is also the only other contender with its own collection of regional sports networks, which remains a bigger brand than Comcast’s, as well as FX, Speed, Fox Soccer Channel, the Big Ten Network, and Fox College Sports, all of which Fox has taken steps to unify under the Fox Sports brand as of late. Fox doesn’t have a sport-specific network other than their past efforts to make one out of FSN, but they do match ESPN note-for-note in various areas that other competitors don’t: a sports-specific Spanish-language network, a nightly highlights show on FSN, a radio network (which, unlike ESPN Radio, lacks any rights and might not be pursuing any), and being ESPN’s main competitor for international rights. All this makes Fox almost as well-positioned to challenge ESPN as Comcast is.

Turner is the next-best positioned; in fact, with NASCAR, MLB, NCAA Tournament, and the crown jewel, NBA rights, Turner has the best existing presence on cable of any contender except ESPN, and that has led to the development of some of the better sports streaming capabilities. Already stocked with sports on TBS and TNT, Turner’s taking of a share of the NCAA Tournament led to an expansion of sports onto truTV, and that appears to have gotten the idea into their minds of adding more sports onto that network; they were reportedly considering putting the NHL on that network. But Turner’s big Achilles heel is its lack of any sort of broadcast presence; I doubt the CW, which parent company Time-Warner is a partner in, will ever find sports to be in line with its target audience. (Which is too bad, because sports would be the best way for the CW to truly become a fifth major broadcast network.)

The remaining broadcast network is CBS, but CBS doesn’t have much other than its own broadcast network. They may be looking to change that: CBS took what was once ESPNU’s truest competitor, the CBS College Sports network, and dropped the “College” from its name, making it simply CBS Sports Network. But CBS Sports still has nowhere near the distribution of even Versus or ESPNU, and it’s doubtful that CBS would be able to snare any truly valuable rights for the network. CBS also doesn’t have much of anything else either; they don’t even hold a stake in the Westwood One radio network anymore.

But while CBS brings a strong broadcast presence (at this point, maybe the strongest broadcast brand) but has no presence on cable, Turner has one of the strongest presences on cable, but nothing on broadcast. It’s no surprise that the two companies, already partners on the CW, make natural partners for sports as well, each complementing the other with their strengths, as was demonstrated most readily when they joined forces to cover the NCAA Tournament. For big events that require both a broadcast and a cable presence, the combined forces of CBS and Turner can present a formidable force where neither would even be a contender individually.

These contenders have already started facing off over some significant sports rights, and the battles have already taken on some interesting dimensions, with ESPN picking up surprisingly few wins. Fox fired the first salvo when it picked up cable rights to the Big 12, putting games on FSN and FX for the next 13 years. Things got interesting when ESPN and Fox tag-teamed on rights to the Pac-12, apparently in part to keep Comcast from establishing a foothold in the market. This belatedly gives Fox the beachhead they were seeking in college sports during their time controlling the BCS contract. Comcast then took control by renewing NBC’s and Versus’ existing NHL rights.

However, the big prize was the much-delayed race between Fox, ESPN and Comcast for the rights to the Olympic games, America’s second-most important property. Despite conventional wisdom holding that the loss of Ebersol would hurt Comcast most in Olympic negotiations, on Tuesday NBC kept control over the Olympics through 2020 by paying nearly twice as much as the competitors. The outcome was a bit of a surprise, both that ESPN didn’t pay more after blowing a lot of smoke about making a play for the Games, and that NBC didn’t pay less, especially after losing substantial sums on the most recent contract, speculated to be among the reasons for Ebersol’s departure (in the end, this round wound up being a replay of the last, Ebersol-led bid), and blowing a lot of smoke about fiscal responsibility.

But Comcast apparently decided that a four-Games bid would ultimately cost less for them, and hopes to make more money in part by spreading the wealth to its cable networks, including Versus. However, unlike a lot of “professional” analysts I’ve read, I’m not convinced a two-week event every two years is going to give Versus the push to achieve ESPN-like legitimacy or carriage fees. NBC did indicate a commitment to showing more events live, including all of them by Rio 2016, but it’s possible many of them will only be available online. The biggest downside? ESPN continues to be shut out of the two events that would most take advantage of their family of networks, the NCAA Tournament and the Olympics. The former in particular would have been a great fit given ESPN’s existing commitment to college basketball.

Where will the next battles be? There will certainly be some interest in the Big East, but the next truly big showdown will be over Major League Baseball, whose current contract ends in 2013. That should be as entertaining and gripping as the battles we’ve already seen – they all should. And I’ll be getting the popcorn ready to keep an eye on all of them.

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Da Blog’s Predictions for 2009

Because a lot of sites I visit are putting up predictions for the new year, so am I, and I’ll check back in at year’s end to see how I did:

  • The year in sports is a massive disappointment. The Super Bowl pits the Dolphins against the Vikings. North Carolina, after an undefeated regular season, loses in the Final Four and the national championship pits UCLA against UConn. The game is a laugher. Cleveland beats San Antonio in the NBA Finals; the Knicks just barely miss the playoffs and LeBron James signs a contract extention to stay in Cleveland after winning his first championship. Mike D’Antoni agrees to a buyout soon thereafter to coach LeBron in Cleveland, condemning the Knicks to a decade of mediocrity. The Stanley Cup Playoffs pit the Calgary Flames against the Montreal Canadiens, and America tunes out. So does Canada when it turns into a four-game sweep that’s not that close. Neither the Red Sox nor Yankees make the ALCS, and one of them misses the playoffs as Tampa Bay and Philadelphia square off again in the World Series.
  • Tiger Woods comes back too soon, finishing second in the Masters, and misses most of 2009, raising concerns he may retire. Jimmie Johnson wins yet another Sprint Cup in a laugher, and by the end of the season he’s winning races basically by showing up, with all the teams quitting. Rafael Nadal is the only player to win at least two majors of either gender, and Roger Federer never makes a major final. USC, Cincinnati, and Alabama are the only three undefeated teams by week 4; they stay that way through the end, and USC routs Alabama in the national championship. There are no BCS buster mid-majors. At least one minor league cancels either the 2009 or 2010 season, and at least one MLS team folds. The IRL cuts back drastically on the 2010 season, and doesn’t so much pass NASCAR as NASCAR passes it backwards. By 2012, though, the IRL is back to 2008 levels, and returns to ESPN in 2018. UFC effectively becomes NASCAR’s replacement as one of the four major sports, and shows it wasn’t moving to pay-per-view that killed boxing.
  • The Olympics moves to ESPN and ABC after landing in Chicago. NBC immediately pulls out of the NHL following the 2009-2010 season. ESPN becomes the exclusive cable home of the NHL (beyond NHL Network) after 2011.
  • The Saints challenge for the NFC South, and the Lions are at least respectable. Brett Favre retires and the Jets become the new Lions. Matt Cassel bolts from New England to join the Jaguars, who instantly become a Super Bowl contender. Tom Brady comes back a clearly different player, and the Pats begin a slow slide into mediocrity. The Cowboys self-destruct and don’t even challenge for the playoffs. The Titans trade Vince Young to Houston in the offseason.
  • Barack Obama finds himself frazzled by the vexing economic crisis and various foreign crises. Troops are out of Iraq by June, but by August Iraq is effectively ruled by several cabals of warlords. Obama uses the money freed up by exiting Iraq to institute his own version of the New Deal, but it doesn’t work very well. Meanwhile little actual “change” happens, even from the politics of the last eight years, and when Obama calls in the military to break up a food riot in November, many in his own party compare him to Bush, and the “netroots” begin forming their own nascent political movement for 2012.
  • By 2012, that movement has gained enough steam to attract attention (and support) from both major parties. However, the economic crisis has only gotten worse and the US has effectively become a vassal state of China… and the Republicans, as a result, prove far more resilient than expected after adopting a bizarre fascist-anarchist policy, a strange kitbashing of the politics of Ron Paul and George W. Bush. Before 2020, World War III has erupted, and America is Nazi Germany after the GOP win the 2012 elections, the last to be held under the Constitution of 1776. The 2016 Olympics become America’s 1936 Munich Games, and come complete with a past-his-prime Michael Phelps being dragged back to the pool. The world comes out of the war with the economy back on track, but set back to the Middle Ages if not before. China, India, and Japan become the new “modern” world powers with Depression-era technology, set back from reaching 1950s-era technology by the ravages to the environment. The Amazon becomes a desert; Canada and Russia become the world’s new breadbasket.
  • The Internet undergoes its latest metamorphosis. By the end of the year, it is as good at watching video as the average television. In the short term, it only benefits from the deepening economic crisis. When the Obama administration passes a universal broadband bill, it sparks an Internet revolution, and blogs become the new MySpace, since you can at least theoretically make money off them. Internet advertising finally becomes viable, if only because nothing else is.
  • Webcomics undergo an explosion during this time. A Penny Arcade TV series is commissioned for Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block by year’s end. By 2010, a Girl Genius movie is in development, and rumors of an Order of the Stick movie persist as well. Sandsday becomes the biggest new thing in webcomics, and by year’s end I’m fighting off TV series offers of my own.
  • Da Blog attracts two huge followings in particular: people looking for webcomics criticism, who singlehandedly make it ten times more popular than Websnark ever was, rendering my getting a real job unnecessary, and people looking for straight-dope political analysis. Da Blog plays a significant role in attracting new audiences to politics, healing the rifts of our political landscape, and shaping the aforementioned nascent political movement.

And that just left me incredibly drained and depressed. I think it’s better if I don’t try to predict what happens, and just try and enjoy the ride. You should try it some time.

Predictions for SportsCenter’s "Top 10 Games" of 2008

In case you haven’t heard, this was a particularly exciting year in sports. When ESPN’s “SportsCenter” does its annual “Top 10 Games” countdown, they could easily extend it to a Top 20. With so many great games, I’ve taken it upon myself to take my own stab at mimicking the ESPN list and what it might look like.

Between some college football playoff-related features and Da Blog’s regular features, I think it’s reasonable to schedule the College Football Rankings’ release, as well as the bowl schedule, for Thursday.

#10: Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, men’s basketball gold medal match, USA v. Spain. The “Redeem Team” lives up to their name in a game Bill Simmons called “one of the 10 most dramatic basketball games of my lifetime. And nobody gave a crap or even knew. The game started at 2:30 in the morning ET and vanished into thin air. Only West Coasters and super-diehards stayed up to see it.”

#9: NHL Hockey, Winter Classic, Pittsburgh Penguins @ Buffalo Sabres. Could the NHL have asked for anything less than a shootout from the first (true) Winter Classic?

#8: College football, SEC Championship Game, Florida v. Alabama. If the regular season is a playoff, this was its semifinal – and it certainly played like one.

#7: MLB Baseball, ALCS Game 5, Tampa Bay Rays @ Boston Red Sox. For the moment, just forget about the fact the Sox couldn’t come all the way back to win the series.

#6: Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, swimming, 4x100m freestyle relay OR 100m butterfly OR 4x100m medley relay. The first two were dramatic finishes on Michael Phelps’ road to Mark Spitz’s record. The last was the one that broke it and had an exciting finish of its own. And I only have it at #6.

#5: College football, Texas @ Texas Tech. The Red Raiders came out to an early lead, only to see Texas come storming back to take a lead of its own. In the end, Texas Tech had the play of the year, and as it turned out, the one that kept Texas out of the National Championship Game.

#4: Wimbledon, men’s final, Roger Federer v. Rafael Nadal. This and the next two I could have put in any order. A five-set, record-length classic that ended with Nadal finally getting the best of Federer away from clay.

#3: Men’s college basketball, NCAA Tournament Final, Kansas v. Memphis. Finally, a National Championship game that lives up to being the culmination of March Madness instead of being a complete anticlimax!

#2: US Open Golf, playoff, Tiger Woods v. Rocco Mediate. 19 holes of pure tension, as basically an unknown gives Tiger every inch of challenge he has, and brings out Tiger’s best to put him on top. And Tiger was injured to the extent it’s still the last event he’s played!

#1: NFL Football, Super Bowl XLII, New England Patriots v. New York Giants. Perhaps the greatest iteration ever of the biggest sporting event of every year? How can it not be #1?

Honorable Mentions: IRL racing, Indy Japan 300 (Danica wins!); Euro 2008 quarterfinal, Croatia v. Turkey (or was it the semis, where Germany beat Turkey? Basically a sop to my soccer-crazed dad anyway); MLB Home Run Derby; ArenaBowl XXII, Soul v. SaberCats (about the only thing that could make it better is if it were the last one); some NBA game I’m forgetting; some obscure game I never heard of or just didn’t watch (possibly from MMA, boxing, the LLWS, Fresno State’s run, the WNBA, MLS, or the like)