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.

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