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U.S. Olympic Network cuts to black before ever seeing light

April 21, 2010 |  5:30 pm
Peter Ueberroth's legacy within the international Olympic world will remain indelible and enormously significant.

That was clearer than ever Wednesday, when many obituaries of former International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch -- mine included -- noted how Samaranch took Ueberroth's model for private financing of the Olympic Games and used it as the basis for the global sponsorship programs that took the IOC from pauperdom to prosperity.

The success of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games, which Ueberroth ran, effectively saved the Olympic movement.

That made some other news Wednesday take on an ironic dimension, chipping away even further at the legacy of Ueberroth's four-plus years as chief executive of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

That news, as first reported by SportsBusiness Daily, was the termination of a deal struck last year between the USOC and Comcast for a U.S. Olympic Network.

The network was Ueberroth's baby.  Whenever he saw USOC chief operating officer Norm Bellingham, the USOC staffer in charge of network development, Ueberroth would ask, apparently in jest, "What channel are we on, Norm?''

That was a sign of Ueberroth's impatience over what seemed an interminable gestation period for the network.  That impatience undoubtedly played into Ueberroth's insistence on going ahead with an announcement of the deal last July despite having received a crease-and-desist letter from the IOC, which warned the USOC to hold off until a large number of contractual issues were resolved.

After Comcast found out about the IOC's objections, it chose to have no representative on the media teleconference for the network announcement.  This time, the cable behemoth just walked away, possibly to rid itself of a contractual entanglement that might have given critics of its proposed merger with NBC -- the U.S. Olympic rights holder through 2012 -- more basis for their argument that the combined company would stand to control the market in too many ways.

When that USOC-IOC conflict flamed up last June, it also reignited the lingering controversy between the two parties over revenue sharing.  That wound up burning Chicago's Olympic bid, even after Larry Probst, who took over as USOC chairman in late 2008, all but begged forgiveness from IOC President Jacques Rogge and announced an indefinite hold on plans for the USOC network.

The IOC members -- and former members -- who had been most vocal about the revenue dispute used the network fiasco to remind everyone the USOC -- and, by inference, its bid city -- was the devil incarnate.

Let's make one thing clear: There was no way Chicago would have beaten Rio for the 2016 Games in last October's vote, not after the IOC  gave Rio a virtual line-by-line analysis of how to improve a bid plan that had been rated fifth among the seven candidates in June 2008. Rogge wanted his legacy as IOC president to include having been in office when South America got its first Olympics, and the IOC did everything it could to make that happen.

(Six months later, the IOC must be thinking it might have been more careful about what it wished for. What it has gotten already is:  horrible crime at this year's Carnival in the notoriously murderous city; mudslides that have killed nearly 200 and left thousands homeless; a political battle over oil revenues that threatens the 2016 organizing budget. Wait until the construction falls far behind.)

Without the network issue, though, Chicago might have avoided its humiliating first-round defeat.

In its announcement of the Comcast deal last July 8, the USOC said the network was supposed to be up and running soon after the Vancouver Winter Games. Now it is probably dead for good.

"This is just a formal acknowledgment of a decision made eight months ago, when we agreed not to pursue the network without the cooperation of the IOC," USOC spokesman Patrick Sandusky said in an e-mail Wednesday. "The timing for the network no longer made sense."

The silliest part of the whole thing was the U.S. Olympic Network never made sense no matter when or which way one looked at it -- especially financially, as it was expected to drain at least $25 million a year from USOC coffers indefinitely.

Someone -- maybe even Bellingham --  can channel that money in more useful ways.

-- Philip Hersh
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