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Big Games,Bigger Dollars

Are you ready for some (more) football?

Oops…sorry, Hank; didn’t mean to rub any salt in that wound. But the eyes of the sports world—and even more so the cable television world—will be on the National Football League in 2012, when the NFL is expected to roll out a new package of Thursday-night games for the first half of the season (a late-season package already resides on the league’s NFL Network).

And competition for the package is fierce. How fierce? Influential New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft’s stadium suite has seen a TV exec or three milling around there a lot this season, and they weren’t on hand to watch Tom Brady. There is even an Oliver Stone-type line of thought that says NBCUniversal did a Major League Soccer TV deal just to curry favor with Kraft—who is also an MLS team owner—in hopes of pushing the NFL deal their way.

So why does everyone want Thursday-night football so badly? Because there are networks to launch—or re-launch. And there is no better way to do that than by adding eight live NFL games. NBCUniversal is dying to get the package to breathe life into a revamped Versus (now called the NBC Sports Network), which is a major priority for its sports division. Turner is also chasing the package hard, as the NFL would look pretty good on its TruTV network, which last year started showing NCAA basketball tournament games and made a play for the Ultimate Fighting Championship as part of its evolving look.

“It’s going to be a really big story, because those who own the NFL are kings,” says Richard Deitsch, who covers media for Sports Illustrated.

There will be other deals coming up for negotiation as well, including that of Major League Baseball. “And there is yet another competitor this time in NBC and [the now former] Versus,” says John Ourand of The Sports Business Daily and Sports Business Journal. Ourand also notes that NASCAR’s TV deals will be coming into play, and the timing is good for the racing outfit as “they have bounced off the bottom in terms of ratings.”

An Olympian Hurdle

London is calling this year as the Summer Olympic Games return to NBC. The network lost more than $220 million the last time around, when the 2010 Winter Games were in time zonefriendly Vancouver. There is no reason to expect the financials to look any better for the second Olympiad in NBC’s $2 billion deal back in 2003 for the ’10 and ’12 Games.

Yet NBC parent Comcast did not flinch when it came to paying Herculean dollars to keep the property, reportedly dropping nearly $4.4 billion for the next four installments of the Olympics beginning in 2014 in Sochi, Russia.

Now it remains to be seen if the Olympics can still run ratings rings around the competition for two weeks every other year.

“NBC paid a fortune to maintain its rights-holder status—many believe they paid too much,” says Deitsch. “I’m going to be fascinated with how London ratings go—which has a lot of appeal for an American audience. The next Olympics in Sochi has the potential to be a ratings disaster, so we need to see if the Olympics still has the same appeal for Americans as they have in the past.”

Another aspect to watch from a ratings standpoint: Unlike during the Dick Ebersol era, NBC has promised to provide live coverage (on TV or online) of every single event.

Regionally Speaking

While industry observers love to ask NBC Sports Network brass about going after ESPN one day, and wonder whether News Corp. will convert one of its existing cable channels to a 24- hour national sports network, the most interesting sports battleground may be on the regional side.

Keep an eye on what Time Warner Cable is up to (Fox didn’t, and they lost the Los Angeles Lakers out West), because Melinda Witmer and her team don’t appear to be thinking small. (“The Dodgers are going to get a ridiculous amount of money,” notes Ourand.) And the explosion of regionally based networks like that of the Pac-12 continues, though with college sports in a massive conference realignment upheaval, calling them “regional” won’t make sense for much longer.

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