Pact gives network the lion's share of coverage

USA Gymnastics signed a deal Wednesday to air its biggest events on NBC and cable partner Universal Sports through 2012.

The agreement, combined with domestic and international contracts NBC has with swimming, skating, track and skiing, gives the networks the lion’s share of the coverage of U.S. teams in five key Olympic sports at a time when the U.S. Olympic Committee is trying to start its own channel.

“This makes sense to us for a lot of reasons,” USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny said. “It’s the natural partner for us and I think the natural partner for the Olympic movement.”

NBC has televised every Summer Olympics since 1988 and every Winter Olympics since 2002.

USOC officials have heaped praise on NBC for its coverage and support but the relationship hit a snag last month when the USOC partnered with Comcast to form a new network that is expected to go to air after the Vancouver Olympics.

The Comcast deal came about after negotiations with NBC and Universal Sports broke down.

Plans for the new network have riled both NBC and the International Olympic Committee, which is worried about alienating the network that is providing the IOC’s biggest chunk of revenue through its $2.2 billion broadcasting deal for 2010 and 2012.

NBC still plans to bid for the next Olympic TV package for the 2014 and 2016 Games.

“As we’ve said consistently since the questions started being asked, we fully intend to be at that table when the IOC decides” on the TV deal, said NBC Olympics president Gary Zenkel.

He said he didn’t want to get drawn into a discussion about the USOC’s network plans.

“I will tell you, that from an NBC perspective, we’re committed to coverage of Olympic sports,” Zenkel said. “We’re committed and very passionate about the Olympic Games.”

Leaders of Olympic sports – the biggest sports, at least – are every bit as committed to NBC and Universal Sports, which airs a good portion of their non-Olympic-year events, either through direct deals with the American governing bodies or through contracts with international federations.

For instance, Universal Sports devoted extensive air time to last month’s swimming world championships in Rome. The cable network’s first big deal in 2003 was with the International Gymnastics Federation.

“We just love the relationship we have with NBC,” USA Swimming executive director Chuck Wielgus said. “Their plans through the 2012 Olympic trials have us incredibly excited. We don’t know what the future holds after that.”

World track championships, which start later this week, will be available on a live internet feed via Universal Sports. NBC plans some coverage, as does the Versus network, which is a creation of Comcast. USA Track and Field does not have a current working contract with NBC, said spokeswoman Jill Geer.

The USOC owns rights to Olympic trials and hopes to put most of them on its network beginning in 2014.

The USOC’s chief operating officer, Norman Bellingham, said he welcomed the USA Gymnastics news.

“We’re very excited to see Olympic sports gain greater coverage in off-year periods,” he said.

The deal will put a lot more gymnastics on live television than before. For instance, the networks will air about seven hours of live coverage from this week’s national championships, as opposed to about 3 1/2 hours in the past. NBC and Universal Sports also provide internet coverage that will mesh with USAG’s own Web site.

The Universal Sports network was the creation of Claude Ruibal, who six years ago began buying up television rights to Olympic sports around the world and airing them on a Web feed, envisioning a network devoted to sports that don’t traditionally get much TV coverage.

The partnership with NBC made sense, and though Universal Sports is not yet a money maker, it is connected to about 36 million homes and available to 20 million more.

“My passion and love was always ‘Wide World of Sports,'” Ruibal said. “I’ve always liked that diversity. It might just be me, but I’ve always had the thought that it would resonate with other customers around the USA.”

Leaders at the USOC think so, too, and now the question will be whether two such networks can make it.

The USOC network is expected to serve up a steady diet of the smaller Olympic sports, along with lifestyle and studio shows and some archival footage – though the rights for the old highlights is among the many disagreements that have to be resolved in negotiations between the USOC, IOC and NBC.

David Raith, executive director of U.S. Figure Skating, said even though his sport has a home at NBC, he’d like to see the USOC network succeed, knowing that would help lower profile sports and the Olympic movement in general.

“There are some questions I think many of us would like to see answered,” he said. “But in the end, we support all of them and we’d like to see all of them be successful.”

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