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ESPN is thinking Olympics and it's not just about going for the gold

September 8, 2009 | 11:11 am

ESPN is looking to snag the Olympics away from longtime rights holder NBC, a top executive at the cable sports behemoth told USA Today.

In an interview with Mike McCarthy, John Skipper, ESPN's executive vice president of content, promised that when it's time to negotiate for the 2014 and 2016 Games, "we'll be there."

SKIPPER Of course, this isn't the first time Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN has pursued the Olympics. It, along with News Corp.'s Fox,  was outbid for the 2010 and 2012 Games by General Electric Co.'s NBC Universal, which shelled out $2 billion to keep the Olympics on its broadcast and cable networks. NBC has been the U.S. home for the Olympics since 2000 and it may take more than a big bid to unseat them.

In explaining why ESPN wanted the Olympics, Skipper talked about the production values it could bring to the Games, but that's not the cable sports giant's only motivation. What Skipper didn't bring up is how the professional sports leagues including the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NBA are putting more of their content on their own cable networks and ESPN also wants the Olympics as a hedge against that loss of that powerful programming. ESPN has been gobbling up other sports as well, including a $500-million, four-year deal for college football's Bowl Championship Series.

EBERSOL ESPN charges cable and satellite operators almost $4 per subscriber per month just to carry the flagship channel. Most distributors also carry ESPN2 and some of the other spinoff channels, meaning that they are coughing up a lot of money. If ESPN loses some of its big sports packages, distributors will balk about the fees they're asked to pay. ESPN is the cash cow for parent Disney, so digging deep into its pockets to bid on the Games shouldn't be a problem.

But the Olympics are as much about relationships as it is about money and production values, and no one is in tighter with the International Olympic Committee than NBC's Dick Ebersol. He just scored even more brownie points with the IOC for helping to squash the United States Olympic Committee and Comcast Corp.'s efforts to start a cable channel here that the IOC was dead set against (see Company Town's take here). While Skipper may be feeling confident about ESPN's chances of landing the Games, a betting man might want to stick with the incumbent.

Furthermore, now that NBC's out of the 10 p.m. drama business and will be saving all that cash by programming Jay Leno in prime time, it has even more money to spend on sports.

-- Joe Flint

Photos, from top: ESPN's John Skipper; NBC's Dick Ebersol. Credits, from top: Lisa Kyle / Los Angeles Times; Aris Messinis / Associated Press