Bidding for the American broadcast rights for the 2014 and 2016 Olympics is set to begin within the next year, and a recent article in the Sports Business Journal suggests that network interest has been tepid, at best.
NBC only has rights to the Games through the 2012 London Games. A fierce bidding war has been expected between NBC, FOX, ESPN and Turner for the exclusive rights to the Sochi and Rio de Janeiro Olympics, but now that NBC is reportedly set to finish Vancouver $200 million in the red, the eagerness to air the Games has waned.
As SBJ points out, all of this could be a negotiating ploy by networks. However, the broadcasters should have legitimate concerns about laying out $2.1 billion (the price NBC paid for Beijing and Vancouver) in rights and countless more in production fees for what amounts to less than 5 percent of their prime-time schedules. The interest will certainly pick back up, but the IOC shouldn't be surprised if it nets less than what NBC paid. It's a depressed marketplace.
So where will the Games end up? With its current tumult and merger with Comcast, NBC is a huge question mark. The net has had the Summer Games since 1992 and the Winter Olympics since 1998, but these things go in cycles, so history will mean next to nothing. (See: Tonight Show, The)
You can trust that Rupert Murdoch will only authorize a legitimate bid for the Olympics if it makes financial sense for FOX's bottom line. And, if it's determined that going after the Games is a good money move, don't expect Murdoch to say so beforehand. Remember, when FOX grabbed NFL rights in 1994, it was a huge surprise. FOX won't overplay its hand.
ESPN seems to be the natural fit. The Disney-owned company is always looking to add sports properties, and getting two Olympics to go with NFL, MLB, NCAA and World Cup broadcasts further advances the network's role as the go-to broadcaster for all sporting events. Plus, ESPN has a number of networks (ESPN2, ESPN News, ESPNU) on which to air coverage. Having the highest subscriber fees on cable doesn't hurt either.
One of the biggest drawbacks to ESPN's potential bid is what the net would do with its other sports properties during the Games. The Summer slate would only necessitate skipping a few baseball games and some meaningless preseason NFL contests. But in the Winter, ESPN has NBA and NCAA basketball to air. This wouldn't preclude the net from airing the Olympics, but don't expect David Stern to be happy that his league will be bumped from main coverage for two weeks (nor will ESPN be pleased at having to pay full rights for broadcasting an abbreviated schedule).
Even in a 500-channel world, airing Olympics is still a big deal. In fact, it's one of the few big deals left in broadcast television. Sometime in the next year, one network will step up and pay a lot of money for the privilege. Until then, though, they'll do everything in their power to keep that amount as low as possible.