Peter Ueberroth was uncharacteristically understated when I gave him the chance to gloat in a phone conversation last week.
Ueberroth, the man who brought financial stability to the Olympics in 1984 (until recent host cities went wild) and brought enduring organizational stability to the U.S. Olympic Committee, simply refused to look back.
“I live in the present and future,” Ueberroth, 79, said from his farm in northern Idaho.
He could say, “I told you so,” now that one of his most criticized and roundly dismissed ideas (yes, I was among the critics) to promote the Olympics and Olympic athletes is about to be fully implemented in the United States.
The Saturday debut of NBC’s 24/7/365 “linear” Olympic Channel ("linear" is industry jargon for over-the-air and cable television) validates the actions Ueberroth took nearly a decade ago to create a similar network, no matter that the effort failed in part because of his headstrong approach to pushing it.
Once viewed as Ueberroth’s folly, guaranteed to suck money from USOC coffers, an Olympic Channel has become an integral part of Olympic marketing strategy.
I asked if he felt vindicated. He parried the question.
“I don’t deal in that,” he said. “You do what you think is right.
“I think it’s great to see an idea come to fruition. It’s probably better timing than when the idea came to me and the people around me.”
That was sometime in 2008, near the end of Ueberroth’s 4 ½ years as USOC chairman. In July 2009, the USOC announced a deal with Comcast for a U.S. Olympic Network, despite having received a cease-and-desist letter from the International Olympic Committee, which was trying to protect U.S. rights holder NBC.
(Such delicious irony: Comcast would take over NBC in early 2011. In June 2011, NBC would go on to buy U.S. rights to the 2014-16-18-20 Olympics for $4.38 billion. In 2014, it would add rights to 22-24-26-28-30-32 for $7.75 billion. Then it would go all in on an Olympic Channel.)
Ueberroth’s plan for a U.S. Olympic Channel officially died when Comcast backed out in 2010. His forward-looking concept eventually would become reality on a global scale because the man who became IOC president in 2013, Thomas Bach, had been intrigued by the idea years earlier.
“Should Peter get credit? Yes, he should,” said Mark Parkman, IOC Olympic Channel general manager. “But also remember that our current president (Bach) proposed this as a newly-elected IOC member in 1994. There were many visionaries.”
Bach proposed the idea again soon after his election to the IOC presidency. The IOC membership approved financing it as part of Olympic Agenda 2020 in December 2014.
Bach and Ueberroth had the same rationale for the network: to generate interest year-round in Olympic sport, especially in non-Olympic years. NBC Olympics president Gary Zenkel outlined those philosophical underpinnings in a Wednesday email about his company’s new channel.
“This partnership (with the IOC and USOC) is part of a larger strategy across multiple platforms to provide more exposure for Olympic athletes, shine a light on their journey to the Olympics and increase opportunities to inspire young people to participate in sports,” Zenkel said.
For NBC, there is an additional reason: to help drive viewership during the 17 days of each Olympics, especially at a time when such viewership in the U.S. has shown a considerable decline that likely will continue with the next three Olympics in Asian time zones.
NBC has some $10 billion in rights fees invested in the upcoming eight Olympics. Zenkel said in an email its commitment to a linear Olympic Channel will go on “indefinitely.”
A digital Olympic Channel has been up and running since the end of the 2016 Rio Summer Games. NBC’s Olympic Channel, also known as “Home of Team USA,” is the first linear offering in any country.
Its debut is timed to take advantage of two of the Olympic world's major biennial events, for which NBC already owns rights: the World Aquatics Championships (swimming, diving, water polo, synchro), which open Friday in Budapest, and the World Track & Field Championships next month in London.
The NBC Olympic Channel's programming will include live events, features (historical footage, documentaries, interviews, features) and some studio shows, with an emphasis on U.S. athletes. Some content will be provided by the global Olympic Channel, which soon will have rights to all but two sports on the summer and winter Olympic programs (track and field and biathlon are the current holdouts) and more than a dozen other sports.
“We want to aggregate an audience of followers of different Olympic sports,” Parkman said.
The IOC has earmarked 470 million Euros ($536 million) to cover the Olympic Channel’s operations through 2021. Three of the IOC’s global sponsors, Alibaba, Bridgestone and Toyota, have signed on as founding partners. Revenues from sponsors are to go back to the IOC, according to Parkman. NBC declined to provide details of its financial commitment to the linear channel.
Neither Parkman nor Zenkel would identify what metrics, if any, would be used to judge the success of either the linear or digital channels.
“We view this as a strategy, not a stand-alone business, and see real value in what the Olympic Channel can do to bolster our long-term Olympic investment, including engaging fans and sponsors year-round,” Zenkel said.
NBC has yet to decide how it will use its Olympic Channel during the Olympics, when it will show the events live on a number of linear and digital platforms.
“The primary purpose. . . is to provide a platform for Olympic sports, athletes and stories in the U.S. between Olympic Games,” Zenkel said.
With the exception of some geoblocked live events, content on the global Olympic Channel will remain accessible to everyone in the United States. Content on NBC’s Olympic Channel will be available in both linear and digital form only to those who have accounts with a cable provider. Arrangements will vary according to provider.
The NBC channel’s launch comes at the end of a week in which another piece of Ueberroth’s Olympic legacy has been re-emphasized. Using a bid plan echoing the one he and his management team created for the 1984 Olympics (private funding, use of existing or temporary venues for sports and the Olympic Village – excepting a few privately financed permanent venues), Los Angeles now seems certain to be a Summer Games host again in 2024 or 2028.
But the IOC and international sports officials long have been slow to acknowledge Ueberroth’s role in saving the whole Olympic enterprise with the enormous success of the 1984 Summer Games.
Many IOC members, whose organization did not have two nickels to rub together in 1980, have an Old World disdain for the U.S. lucre they gobble up as fast as they can. Ueberroth’s pointed reminders of which nation’s corporations were keeping the Olympics afloat raised their pompous hackles even more. Some of the most duplicitous IOC members, including the late Hein Verbruggen, were the angriest at Ueberroth.
That was the Ueberroth I am familiar with – prickly, combative (he tried to take my head off at one USOC meeting), impolitic if he thought it necessary, effective. What else would you expect from a man whose private equity company is called, “The Contrarian Group?”
So the issue of the Olympic Review, the IOC’s official magazine, that came out during the 30th anniversary of L.A. ’84 featured a look back at the. . .1992 Barcelona Games.
Maybe that is changing. During this week’s IOC meetings to discuss and then approve awarding the 2024 and 2028 Olympics simultaneously once (if?) L.A. and Paris agree on who gets which, Bach called the 1984 Summer Games “a turning point in Olympic history.”
Yet Ueberroth, who turns 80 in September, remains the most influential and important person in Olympic history not to have been made an IOC member, and he now is well beyond the age limit of 70. When I asked if he regretted that oversight, he laughed softly three times before saying, “No. I’m pretty much not a joiner. I take on a project if I think I can be helpful.”
Ueberroth said he was not involved with the L.A. 2024 bid. “Nor would I want to be,” he said. “Nor should I be. This is for the next generation.”
HIs past is the Olympics' present and future.