How Comcast scored that four-Games victory

Brian Roberts (center) Comcast Corp. chief executive officer, with the International Olympic Committee's Richard Carrionas (left) and president Jacques Rogge as broadcast rights to four Olympic Games starting in 2014 are awarded.
Brian Roberts (center) Comcast Corp. chief executive officer, with the International Olympic Committee's Richard Carrionas (left) and president Jacques Rogge as broadcast rights to four Olympic Games starting in 2014 are awarded. (IOC, Juilliart)
Posted: June 12, 2011

One of the most luxurious hotels in Lausanne, Switzerland, is a place they call "The Palace," and late Tuesday afternoon, ESPN and Fox Sports executives were drinking in its bar as reporters prowled the lobby, desperate to know who would prevail in the bidding for U.S. television rights for the Olympic Games beginning in 2014.

Upstairs - and very aware of the clamor below - were Comcast Corp. chief executive Brian Roberts and NBC network executives.

Around 5 p.m., Roberts and his team sneaked out of a service elevator at the Lausanne Palace & Spa and walked about a block in the rain to a waiting car. Doors opened and closed, the car pulled away, and Comcast went to pick up its grand prize at International Olympic Committee headquarters.

Like a scene out of a John le Carré novel, the cloak-and-dagger slip was one of the final steps in a lengthy project at Comcast to have NBC remain "the Olympic network." Many believed that was a long shot, that Comcast would lose because it wouldn't spend the money needed to outbid ESPN or Fox, or the International Olympic Committee wouldn't have confidence in NBC without executive Dick Ebersol - the mastermind responsible for NBC's grip on the Games and its broadcast artistry.

Comcast has officially owned NBCUniversal Inc. for less than six months, having acquired 51 percent of the outfit from General Electric Co. So it is near stunning that Comcast won the broadcast rights for the Olympic Games through 2020 with a $4.4 billion bid, trouncing Fox Sports and ESPN.

Even the IOC officials seemed blown away, raving over the Comcast/NBC presentation, which included a video of memorable Olympic moments, referred to at NBC as "Titans," and a second video of personal interviews with NBC Sports employees about their love for their jobs, dubbed internally as "Faces."

"The final video was so emotional and moving that there was hardly a dry eye when it was over," Brian Roberts said later, clearly proud. Roberts addressed the IOC brass three times during the two-hour presentation, and so did 10 other NBC employees, including eight-time Olympic host Bob Costas.

Roberts and Michael Angelakis, Comcast's chief financial officer, recounted in an hour-long interview last week, Comcast's extensive preparation for the Olympic bidding, which included, among other things, finding a secret conference room in Lausanne to rehearse the pitch for the Olympic officials on the eve of the presentation.

Angelakis and Roberts also defended the $4.4 billion price - $1 billion higher than the next-best offer. They claimed Comcast and NBC would earn a profit on the telecasting of the Games of 2014, 2016, 2018, and 2020.

One of the biggest management tests was the resignation of Ebersol two weeks before the bidding in Lausanne that threw NBC Sports into disarray.

Roberts said he met for six hours with the devastated NBC Sports staff on the Sunday after Ebersol resigned, listening as the employees told him of their hopes for the Olympics.

Ripping a page from Ebersol's playbook, the NBC employees believed they should focus on storytelling and Olympic passion, instead of just the athletic events themselves.

But they wondered how NBC would win the bid, since Ebersol usually single-handedly negotiated the rights deals.

Roberts described an anxiety and a vibe in the room. "The team was trying to figure out how to get this bid together without Dick," said Roberts. "They were ready to have their moment."

With Ebersol, Comcast could have leaned on one man. Without him, the company jetted about a dozen NBC officials to Lausanne, among them Molly Solomon, who produces the personality profiles of the athletes, and Bucky Gunts, who produces the opening ceremonies.

Impressing the IOC was one thing. Paying for it was another. The once-profitable Olympics franchise at NBC lost $220 million during the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver for GE. NBC is expected to lose a similar amount televising the 2012 Summer Games in London for Comcast.

NBC's financial performance in 2010 had been largely attributed to a weak economy. But Comcast officials say the broader problem was that there was not a proper balance of advertising, surcharges on pay-TV operators, and NBC affiliate fees to defray the costs of the Olympic rights.

Crucially important to Comcast was winning the Olympic Games through 2020 and purchasing all of the rights - TV, digital, radio, and wireless. How to convince Olympic officials to sell these rights for the four Olympic Games was hotly debated. The IOC seemed to prefer selling only two Games - the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, and the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. The IOC could then sell the 2018 and 2020 Games at higher prices at a later date.

Comcast sought just the opposite and structured its bids one for two Games and one for four Games - so that the four-Games package would be more attractive to the IOC.

"This is the most-watched event over 17 days, plus you have the buildup, and the ratings are off the chart," said Angelakis. "We knew we were going to bid. We knew a year ago the best option for us was to go long."

And they did.


Contact staff writer Bob Fernandez at 215-854-5897 or bob.fernandez@phillynews.com.

 

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