- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 9, 2009

The U.S. Olympic Committee announced Wednesday it will partner with Comcast to launch a new full-time cable channel devoted solely to the Olympic movement in America.

The new network, to be dubbed the U.S. Olympic Network (USON) is expected to debut sometime next year with 24-hour programming on sports ranging from bobsledding to judo.

“USON is going to deliver rich, year-round content devoted to the world’s greatest sporting event,” said Stephanie Street, acting chief operating officer of the USOC. “Bringing this exciting programming to Olympic audiences will promote the Olympic movement… and is expected to give our athletes additional resources to help them flourish.”

USOC executives said the network will not hold rights to the Olympic Games themselves but will show events from 31 of the national governing bodies of the American Olympic sports, plus archival footage, films, original series and instructional programming. It also will have the exclusive rights to the U.S. Olympic trials after 2012.

USOC officials touted the network as a potential boon to U.S. Olympic athletes and a new way for sponsors to gain exposure and leverage their relationship with the Olympics. But serious questions remained Wednesday about the viability - and even the legality - of the venture. Board members from the International Olympic Committee reportedly were angered by the USOC’s decision to announce the network without getting approval to use the Olympic name or past television footage.

Moreover, the rights of many Olympic sports are held by Universal Sports, a cable channel founded by NBC Universal dedicated to Olympic events. NBC Universal holds the rights to the Olympic Games through 2012.

Universal Sports is available in nearly 50 million homes and controls a wide array of Olympic rights, including those for track and field, though it does not hold rights for tennis, team handball, boxing, field hockey, weightlifting or shooting. Universal is in talks with the national governing bodies for skiing, swimming and gymnastics, plus figure skating and speed skating.

Executives from NBC Universal declined to comment. But several industry observers said they could not imagine two networks devoted to Olympic sports succeeding simultaneously.

“When I heard talk that the USOC looking to launch this network, my first thought was, ‘Do we need another Olympic sports network?’ ” said Larry Mann, executive vice president of rEvolution, a sports marketing consultancy in Chicago. “The U.S. swim championships are going on in Indianapolis this weekend and it barely gets any play, and [Michael] Phelps is in four events. And swimming is the biggest. If you’re talking about handball and some of these other things, it’s going to be challenging.”

But the USOC said Universal Sports and the new network could coexist.

“We don’t see ourselves competing with Universal Sports,” USOC chief operating officer Norman Bellingham said. “We see ourselves as the only network out there that is focused on the Olympic movement.”

Several industry sources said the alliance with the USOC could foreshadow a bid by Comcast to pursue the broadcast rights to the Olympic Games beyond 2012, though a Comcast spokesman declined to comment on whether the company had such plans.

It is still unclear precisely how Comcast would benefit financially from the arrangement. The USOC said it will provide Comcast with assistance in startup costs but declined to say whether it would offer the company a guarantee from advertising. Sports Business Daily reported Wednesday that the USOC had offered as much as $40 million in annual advertising rights, but several industry sources expressed skepticism that the network could generate that level of revenue.

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