Friday, February 18, 2011

Olympics Up For Grabs?

Last month at the NATPE convention in Miami, outgoing NBC Universal President Jeff Zucker talked a bit about the importance of sports to NBC. Now Zucker is gone as part of Comcast's takeover of NBCU, and the new owners apparently don't think quite as much of sports, at least the Olympics.

New CEO Steve Burke has announced that NBC may drop the Olympics as part of cost-cutting measures. Burke says that NBC lost around $220 million on the 2010 games in Vancouver, and Comcast may not bid for future games because of the dramatic rise in rights fees. NBC paid $2.2 billion for the Vancouver winter games and the 2012 games in London.

Is this a sign of things to come or simply the move of one company trying to reverse its fortunes? (Burke says he thinks it will take five years to turn around the NBC broadcast network, which will need help from its profitable cable sister stations). Competition between other networks could still push rights fees for future Games above the $4 billion mark, but there is a growing sense that there is a limit on how much networks are willing to pay.

The Olympics are still important in many respects, but certainly not the seminal sports and cultural event they were in years past. We used to turn to the Olympics to see events and athletes from different places; things we had never seen before. Now, modern technology brings us all those things on almost a daily basis, and much of the reaction today is "been there, done that." Globalization of professional sports also factors into this. The opening of the NBA, NHL and MLB to foreign players takes away much of the Olympic mystique.

So is this an economic issue or a cultural one? An interesting question and there certainly is no easy answer. The reality is that it's probably a little bit of both.


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