The prospects of the unholy union of Comcast and NBC from a sports perspective

There are a few things I don’t get about the Comcast/NBC merger. For one thing, how can Comcast own both its cable system and NBC’s owned-and-operated stations? (Answer: That would have been a problem a decade ago, but not now. Or maybe it is. Still, it’s one of many questions Comcast will have to answer to pass regulatory and Congress muster, and maybe Comcast wants to sell off the NBC network to a third party, as little sense as that seems to make.)

And as for the common notion that having NBC and Versus join forces could start creating a genuine competitor to ESPN… am I the only one who remembers Versus’ Jamie Davis saying back in March he didn’t want to be ESPN? Or would he now say “We didn’t say we didn’t want to compete with ESPN, just that we didn’t want to be ESPN,” even though he was explicitly responding to people’s expectations and Versus may have to drop their “focusing on certain audiences” tack if they want to compete with ESPN? Or would Versus drop its “not ESPN” shtick in a heartbeat given the opportunity, as evidenced by its past plays for NFL and MLB rights? Or maybe “We have a huge opportunity to create another sports brand in America” just as Versus hits a low point with the DirecTV dispute? And how do Versus and Universal Sports fit together, anyway?

Comcast certainly has a lot of resources now. If it can find the right synergy between Versus and Universal Sports, it now has its own equivalent to ESPN2 – though which is which, and whether they’re equals, or even if Comcast wants to emphasize one or two channels as opposed to the whole, I don’t know. (If they’re equals, does the Tour de France move to Universal Sports? It seems to fit that network’s Olympic-sport theme better…) More importantly, it now has its own broadcast network connection, regardless of how strong NBC is, as well as a start on a Spanish-language presence with Telemundo (and its sister mun2). Versus also now has a connection with a general-interest sports news website, and a Versus connection could help build the brand of NBCSports.com. Those are important bargaining chips in negotiations with sports entities, matching some of the exposure ESPN can give.

Comcast also has some things ESPN doesn’t have, mainly a collection of regional sports networks, though those will help Comcast with the brand more than with national sports rights, as Rupert Murdoch found. (“Oh, ESPN is launching a series of local web sites? Oh look, we already have them!”) It’s anyone’s guess how Comcast SportsNet will benefit from an alliance from NBC and whether it’ll seek greater synergy with Versus and Universal Sports. Those networks could benefit from synergies with NBC stations in the same market. Comcast also has its own video-on-demand service for its cable customers, as well as the Golf Channel. To do: Launch your own version of SportsCenter, get some sort of international presence, get a radio network so you can offer rights there, and overcome the fact that NBC is the only one of the four major networks without a connected college sports network. (Comcast brings the mtn., but that doesn’t count.)

But if Comcast wants to get serious about creating competition for ESPN, they may have an even more uphill climb than most people think, and it’ll be a decade-long process to achieve theoretical parity that’ll also cost a lot of money. It used to be that whoever controlled the NFL cable contract controlled the world of sports, but the BCS deal shows anything not under the scrutiny of Congress could conceivably move to cable, though even there there’s fairly slim pickings. Comcast would need to either somehow pick up a contract on the level of the NFL or BCS (and picking up an NFL contract in addition to ESPN’s is fairly unlikely, and with all their NFL programming and cable ratings records ESPN isn’t giving up their NFL rights without a fight), or find a way to overcome its lack of that kind of big-ticket contract – I don’t see Sunday Night Football moving to cable (unlike some), and the Olympics are not going to give Versus the kind of big-ticket events that draw ratings (most of which are not only already on NBC, but already in primetime).

That means Comcast will need to focus on lots of slightly lesser-ticket events, and that brings me to the blueprint I proposed for an “ESPN killer” in March. (Which seems to suggest look for Golf Channel to pick up the first two rounds of the US Open at the next opportunity…) They will still need at least one major professional sport – and not the Traditional Big Four, which would make the NHL count, but the Modern Big Four, which swaps out the NHL for NASCAR. The NHL counterpoints the NBA and IndyCar counterpoints NASCAR, so baseball – up in 2013 – would be a good fit. ESPN’s partnership with baseball is nearly as deep and long-lasting as its partnership with the NFL, but it seems to be being forced out – after having baseball nearly ubiquitous on the schedule a few years ago, it’s now down to Sunday, Monday, and Wednesday Night Baseball, and no longer shows any postseason games. Comcast could take one (probably Sunday), two (Mon/Wed), or all of those, while making a play for at least some postseason games. If an LCS remains on cable Comcast’s biggest coup would be to take it, giving it much-needed eyeballs. If it can’t get that (though I see this contract as TBS transitioning out of baseball entirely, by having an excuse to dump the Braves), it should go after the Home Run Derby as a consolation prize, consistently one of the highest-rated non-NFL sports events on cable.

Comcast might also be thinking about going after one other sport, just to get one more boost in eyeballs. But if it can’t add the NFL, NBA, or NASCAR, it’s time to start thinking about going after college football – but that opens up a whole new can of worms. NBC brings its Notre Dame contract and Versus already has a deal with the Mountain West and lower-tier Big 12 and Pac-10 games, but generally ESPN gets all the good stuff before Versus, and while Comcast is reportedly thinking about putting some lower-tier Notre Dame games on Versus, Notre Dame would be livid if another college football conference were to share time on NBC. (That could mean Notre Dame and NBC are done after 2015, and maybe then Notre Dame joins a conference.) But Comcast should ideally go after at least three BCS conferences – establishing themselves, at least perceptually, as ESPN’s equal.

Comcast has an interesting opportunity right now (if it’s fine with pissing off Notre Dame), but not a lot of time to take advantage of it (if negotiations aren’t so far along there’s no time at all), and probably can’t wait for the merger to pass regulatory muster (and by merely mentioning this idea out loud I probably doom it not to happen). After seeing the megadeals the SEC and Big Ten received, the Big 12 and Pac-10, finding themselves waiting a year behind the ACC for their share of the pie, have reportedly been thinking about joining with the ACC to form one coast-to-coast college sports network. Here’s an idea: Perhaps Comcast can convince all three of them to abandon ESPN entirely (perhaps one can remain on ABC) and put their games on NBC, Versus, and Universal Sports, plus join with Comcast to form the aforementioned college sports network, convincing them that the three of them combined, with their existing power, can form a college sports television power rivaling ESPN – taking care of your college needs in one fell swoop. Comcast could even take over the Raycom syndication empire and have a college syndication arm to match ESPN Regional Television. This doesn’t give you either of the two conferences that are powers in both football and basketball, the SEC or Big Ten, and it gives you the two weaklings in basketball in the Big 12 and Pac-10, but it does give you the powerhouse conference in basketball, and with it a major coup: the Duke-North Carolina rivalry. What will Dick Vitale do?!?

Versus shuns bowl games right now because it doesn’t fit its “total immersion experience” or something like that. That needs to change if it’s serious about building a college presence and taking on ESPN, and the contracts are on the line pretty much now for the next four years. Tip: The Alamo and Holiday bowls would provide Big 12-Pac-10 matchups. I would also go after either the MAC or Conference USA (the latter is up now, the former in 2016), just to create another even split of the mid-majors, even though that’s more to please me than for any actual ratings. (I’d also go after any two of the WCC (for Gonzaga), the CAA, or Horizon League, for basketball and an even split of those mid-majors, and maybe that College Basketball Invitational or College Insider tournament oddity.)

A union between Comcast and NBC might lead to big changes at Comcast’s sports networks – Dick Ebersol’s expertise might bring the quality of Versus, Golf Channel, and Comcast SportsNet more on par with NBC, and more importantly, ESPN. I also can’t help but wonder if the graphics on Versus shift to be more like the graphics on NBC or Universal Sports, and more consistent. (Versus’ college football and NHL score graphics have never looked very similar. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find modularity between any two of Versus’ sports score graphics, despite theoretically similar overall graphics.) And what happens with the US Olympic Committee? They wanted to launch their own network with Comcast, which raised the hackles of its partners since it didn’t form one with partner NBC or hitch on to Universal Sports. What happens with that project? Does it hitch on to Universal Sports? Does it form a new network with Comcast/NBC, or someone else? If it forms a new network with Comcast/NBC, does most of Universal Sports’ programming move there, clearing the way for US to become “Versus 2” or vice versa? Also, I don’t see any need for Versus to change its name – odd as it sounds, and odd as it sounded at the time, it’s better than “OLN” ever was and kind of fits in its own little way. I can see a contrast between ESPN and “Versus”. Not that I wouldn’t be surprised if Comcast did change the name, but it fits in with such NBCU channels as “Stealth” and “Chiller”.

Things could get very interesting over the next ten years (and potentially just the next five) as Comcast seeks to shake up the sports TV landscape… before the Internet overturns the TV landscape in general.

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