With the 2018 Winter Olympics’ first events starting Wednesday and the opening ceremonies Friday, it’s a good time to look back at how NBC wound up with the rights to these Games and what that’s meant for different sports networks.
NBC is very known as the Olympic network now, as they have had exclusive rights to both the Summer and Winter Olympics since 2000 (and also broadcast the 1968, 1972, 1988, 1992 and 1996 Games), but in the summer of 2011 when rights for 2014 through 2020 were being decided (with bids in the envelopes seen above), they came in as an underdog in many minds.
However, NBC managed to win those rights over Fox and ESPN thanks to a bid of around $4.4 billion for the four Games (plus $200 million in sponsorship from then-NBC minority owner General Electric), and although their by-all-accounts impressive presentation likely helped there, so did bidding a billion more than the nearest competitor (Fox reportedly offered $3.4 billion for the four Olympics, or $1.5 billion for just 2014 and 2016, while ESPN bid only $1.4 billion for 2014 and 2016). That decision has since had major impacts for all three of those broadcasters, plus CBS and Turner (which didn’t bid this time around).
Here’s a look at what it’s meant for each network.
NBC: The Olympics have become one of their centerpieces, but that bid has left them with less money to spend elsewhere. Whether the $4.4 billion NBC paid for those four Games is actually worth it or not depends on your perspective. The Olympics is a marquee event that draws strong ratings, and NBC has earned a fair bit off of ad sales there (an estimated $850ish million off the 2014 Winter Games, an estimated over $900 million off these upcoming Games, and an estimated $1.2 billion off the 2016 Summer Games). Yes, that doesn’t cover the rights fees in all cases (estimated as $775 million in 2014, $1.226 billion in 2016, $963 million in 2018 and $1.418 billion in 2020), to say nothing of the incredible expense involved in producing the Olympics, but it also doesn’t account for the countless in-house ads NBC runs throughout the Games to pump up its other programming. The Olympics are generally seen as a loss-leader, so the amounts NBC has made back so far are nothing to scoff at. And while they’re not proof that this was an amazing deal, they’re also not proof that it was a failure.
On the more critical side, though, it’s notable that NBC’s bid came in so much higher than what Fox and ESPN offered. If the Peacock had pulled these rights in for, say, $3.6 billion instead, this deal would look a lot better for them. That’s a challenge with a closed-bid auction like this, where you can’t see exactly what a competitor’s willing to do, and while that can sometimes lead to great deals (if everyone submits lowball offers just in case, someone can get a steal), it can also lead to one entity paying far more than anyone else would. And while there’s still an argument that NBC is getting acceptable value from this, it would be stronger if they were paying closer to what their competitors offered.
Beyond that, NBC’s 2014 extension through 2032 (so the 2022, 2024, 2026, 2028, 2030 and 2032 Games) for $7.65 billion (plus a $100 million signing bonus to be used to promote “Olympism and the Olympic values”) is perhaps even more questionable. Disregarding the signing bonus, that’s $1.28 billion per Games on average, a jump from the $1.1 billion on average in this deal. With viewership declining in both 2014 and 2016, this doesn’t necessarily appear to be a tremendous long-term play, especially as we have no idea what the TV sports picture will be in 2032. NBC was smart enough to get rights for “broadcast and cable TV, internet and mobile rights plus any technology that has yet to be invented,” so even if the Olympics is being projected into our brains at that point, it will still have Peacock branding, but it may not be worth what they’re paying by then.
Of course, there are plenty of unknowns there, and there are also ways that this deal could work out well for NBC. If the TV landscape continues to fragment, and if better alternative methods of advertising aren’t found, it’s possible that NBC could rake in more advertising revenue even with smaller ratings (Fox VP Michael Mulvihill’s recent tweet on the Super Bowl versus TV’s #1 primetime entertainment show is worth keeping in mind here), and it’s also possible that people could rally around the Olympics and send ratings skyrocketing (perhaps especially for U.S.-hosted Games like LA 2026). But all the arguments about challenges with ESPN and Turner’s NBA deals (also signed in 2014, through 2024-25, for an average of $1.4 and $1.2 billion respectively) definitely apply to this NBC deal.
It’s also worth contemplating how this deal has led to NBC’s other moves. The Olympics is one of their biggest sports plays (the other is the NFL, where they agreed in 2011 to pay an average of $950 million a year for Sunday Night Football, playoff and Super Bowl games through 2022, and where they also paid $225 million in 2016 and 2017 for half the Thursday Night Football rights), and that has caused them to be selective elsewhere. They’ve focused in on the NHL and the English Premier League, gaining praise for their coverage of those sports, and have also done some deals for rights to golf, NASCAR and Notre Dame, plus coverage of Olympic sports’ non-Olympic events. But they’ve either stayed out of the bidding or made smaller unsuccesful bids for properties like NBA, MLB, and big college conference rights.
AA’s Ben Koo wrote in March 2011 (before the Olympic deal) that NBC was mostly playing defense when it came to rights, and that has largely held true since then; they’ve made some additions, but more at the margins than with hotly-contested properties. And that has played into their overall strategy with NBCSN, too; it’s a home for fans of sports like hockey and soccer but isn’t trying to be an ESPN competitor the way FS1 has attempted. (Which hasn’t worked out all that well so far, so maybe NBC’s approach is the right one.) But it’s interesting to contemplate the alternate history where NBC loses Olympic rights to Fox or ESPN. Does that make them go out and get the NBA, MLB, or the Big Ten? Or the World Cup? Does NBCSN try to be an ESPN competitor? And would they be better or worse off by doing so? We’ll never know, but the path NBC has chosen appears very much based around their Olympic deal.
Fox: Would they have passed on other properties like the World Cup? What would the Olympics have meant for FS1?
The 2011 Olympic bids made clear that Fox was going to continue heavily targeting sports, and they’ve done just that, taking away the U.S. rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups from ESPN in the fall of 2011 (for about $1 billion total), reupping with MLB in 2012 (for around $500 million per year), taking the lead on the Big Ten in 2017 ($220 million per year), later controversially getting the 2026 World Cup without a bid and more. And it’s possible that Fox still would have ponied up for all those deals; they’re not short of money, they’ve made sports a focus, and it’s not like any of that other programming directly overlaps with the Olympics. But the most logical scenario seems to be that they wouldn’t have gone in so hard for the World Cup if they already had the Olympics, and that that property would likely have stayed with ESPN (where it was one of John Skipper’s most-emphasized projects).
In the short term at least, that probably would have been a benefit for Fox, especially with the U.S. team failing to make the 2018 World Cup and the network appearing set to lose money on that event (and likely on the 2022 one as well, especially if it is in fact moved to the winter and overlaps with the NFL). In the long term, that’s more debatable, especially with Fox getting a 2026 North American-hosted World Cup without a competitive bid process; that may wind up being one of the best broadcasting deals out there. But regardless of whether getting those rights was positive or not, it seems less likely Fox would have picked them up if they were paying $3.5 billion for the Olympics. Or it’s possible that they could have gotten the World Cup and the Olympics but passed on something else, gaining big-event programming at the expense of regular programming.
It’s also worth contemplating how Olympic rights could have altered FS1. The impact there would have at least partly depended on if Fox kept its other properties or not; if it did, the biggest change might have been increased prominence for FS1 around the Olympics, but if it didn’t, the network might have gone more of a NBCSN route, focusing on more niche sports rather than gunning straight for ESPN. And beyond that, maybe Olympic rights would have steered Fox into emphasizing news and analysis rather than debate in their programming and with their hires. Maybe they pick up Mike Tirico instead of Skip Bayless, or maybe they keep Jay Onrait, Dan O’Toole and other news-focused personalities around. It’s certainly hard to see Skip and Shannon hosting a nightly Olympic broadcast.
ESPN: What would this have meant for carriage fees and cord-cutting?
A big question with an ESPN bid is how much of the Olympics would have been on ESPN cable networks, and how much would have been on sister broadcast network ABC. If they had managed to put a lot of the biggest Olympic events on ESPN’s cable networks, that might have been a compelling argument to boost their per-subscriber carriage fees even further. That’s what happened with their NBA deal, after all. But, as we saw with that deal, that led to those hikes being passed on to consumers, to distribution executives blaming ESPN for accelerating the spread of cord-cutting and to the market blaming ESPN for Disney not hitting revenue targets.
If ESPN had gotten the Olympics, put a good amount of prime Olympics content on their cable networks, and still struck that NBA deal, their per-subscriber fee would be even higher and their place at the top of the sports cable pantheon would be even more secure, but cord-cutting might have happened even more quickly and in greater numbers, and there would be even more worries about the company’s long-term rights deals. If ESPN got the Olympics but lost the NBA, their regular non-Olympic audiences would suffer, and either FS1 or NBCSN might have been able to gain more ground on them. And what about other big ESPN investments, such as the 20-year deal with the SEC signed in 2013 and the creation of the SEC Network? Maybe they’re not so eager to dive into that if they’re spending all this money on the Olympics.
It’s also worth noting that ESPN bid for only two Olympics, 2014 and 2016. So if their bid had been selected, there would have been another round of bidding for the 2018 and 2020 Games. And that might have been significantly lower, as the decision to put the 2018 Olympics in South Korea came a month after this round of bidding, and the 2020 decision on Japan came in 2013. If networks had known those games would be in Asia with the associated time zone challenges, they might not have thrown as much money at the games.
CBS and Turner: These networks didn’t bid on the Games in 2011, but the decision to give the Olympics to NBC rather than ESPN or Fox still affected them. CBS and Turner signed their joint March Madness deal through 2024 with the NCAA in 2010, so that wouldn’t have changed regardless of what happened here. It’s possible the 2016 deal to extend those rights through 2032 wouldn’t have happened the same way if a different network had come up with Olympic rights, but unlikely; that one probably still goes through. But what could have changed is these networks’ other properties. For example, if ESPN grabbed the Olympics and then made a smaller bid for the NBA, maybe Turner takes a larger share of those rights (possibly including even the Finals). The same could be said if Fox got them; maybe Turner takes a larger share of MLB rights as a result. Or maybe CBS gets into the NBA or MLB. That’s all very hypothetical, especially for companies not involved in the bidding, but the bid here definitely affected who they compete with or partner with in other areas, and it also contributed to the rising cost of sports rights in general.
And maybe that’s the biggest impact from the 2011 Olympic bids all this time later. Sports rights have gone through the roof in the last decade, and the Olympic deal was certainly a major factor there, especially with NBC coming in a billion above their nearest competitor. NBC’s willingness to pay that much further buttressed the idea of live sports as a programming keystone, and it further reinforced leagues’ belief in the value of their product, enabling them to extract top dollars from networks in rights deals. If the Olympics had gone to ESPN for two editions, then received lower bids for the next two, or even if it had gone to Fox for a billion less, that might have led to less rights inflation overall. And that could make for a different conversation about sports rights today.