Could Ueberroth have last word on Olympic TV network?

IOC president now pushing failed plan former USOC chairman championed

Peter Ueberroth cannot help but feel the irony in new International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach’s expressed intention to explore the idea of having the IOC form its own television network.

Bach went a step further in a conference call with reporters Saturday. After a four-day "brainstorming" meeting of IOC executive board members, he said the IOC had commissioned its Olympic Broadscasting Services to do a feasibility study.  The IOC's general membership will discuss the idea in February, and a proposal could be presented for membership approval at an extraordinary session next December.

Ueberroth tried to implement the same idea domestically while he was chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee.  His rationale was the same as Bach outlined during his successful campaign for the IOC presidency and then reiterated to reporters twice in the couple weeks.

``The Olympic sports do not have enough coverage and the Olympic sports need to be promoted also in the time between games,’’ Bach said in a conference call last week.

He could have been quoting Ueberroth, who said virtually the same thing many times, emphasizing how more exposure would help both current and future Olympic athletes.

``What you really want to do is see that as many young people as possible get a chance to learn about and play Olympic sports,’’ Ueberroth told the Associated Press in 2006.

Of course, Ueberroth went about executing the idea in his characteristic bull-in-the-china-shop manner, which led to friction between the USOC and IOC and was among the factors that undermined Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics.

Not long after Ueberroth’s tenure as USOC chairman ended in late 2008, the USOC completed a deal with Comcast to realize his vision and get a U.S. Olympic Network up and running, no matter that some saw it as a folly that would suck $25 million a year from the USOC coffers.

Comcast, then in the process of buying NBC, the Olympic TV rights-holder in the United States, was unaware the IOC had sent the USOC a cease-and-desist letter about the U.S. network, warning the USOC to back off until some contractual issues were resolved.

So Comcast immediately stepped away from the U.S. Olympic Network, which died aborning in April, 2010. 

It may have simply lacked a long enough gestation period.

The idea of an IOC network still is a long way from even being further developed, let alone a reality.

But hearing Bach talk about it can only make one think Ueberroth was ahead of his time, just as he had been with the private financing plan used for the 1984 Summer Olympics he ran.

It was a plan born out of necessity that became the model for the global sponsorship programs that took the IOC from pauperdom to prosperity.  The IOC’s current revenues would make bankrolling an international Olympic network possible.

And being ahead of one’s time is not without ironic precedent in Olympic television.

For the 1992 Olympics, NBC tried to satisfy U.S.viewers and TV critics who railed against its tape-delayed broadcasts and minimal coverage of many events by offering the “Triplecast,” which created à la carte live packages on pay-per-view cable channels.  The Triplecast attracted just a handful of viewers, wound up losing a bundle and seemed all but forgotten.

Then the digital media revolution occurred, making a revised version of Triplecast relatively easy to bring off.  At the London Olympics in 2012, the first for which Comcast was in charge of NBC, U.S. viewers had access to a free live stream of all competition and a skaziillion hours of live and taped TV coverage on several platforms, including over the air and cable.

Comcast will give the 2014 Sochi Olympics the same coverage – more than 1,000 hours of live streaming on nbcolympics.com and the NBC Sports Live Extra app, plus an as-yet unspecified but large number of television hours of events taking place with a 10-hour time difference from Chicago.

Such history is instructive and interesting, but there is still no way to know whether an international Olympic network is an idea whose time will come.

If it does, Peter Ueberroth will have the right to say he told you so.

And it’s a safe bet he will do just that.

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