Dick Ebersol, the legendary head of NBC Sports, will inherit MMA via Comcast's ownership of Versus.
The New York Times say the target is ESPN:
Comcast's impending acquisition of NBC Universal will certainly set off an effort to turn Versus into a viable alternative, if not a full-fledged competitor, to ESPN, The New York Times's Richard Sandomir writes. Under Comcast's ownership, Versus has transformed from the Outdoor Life Network to OLN, then, in 2006, into its current incarnation.
But Versus is a second-tier network whose highest-profile sports, the N.H.L. and the Tour de France, aren"t blockbusters. It lacks a studio show that would give it identity, like ESPN's "SportsCenter," or an announcer who is its defining personality.
Versus (and its sister network, the Golf Channel) will be turned over to NBC for an overhaul, assuming regulators approve the deal, a process that could take 12 to 18 months. Versus will probably be renamed something like NBC Sports Cable to reflect a more defined sports brand. On-air and production talent would migrate from NBC, to a certain extent, although Bob Costas would not be hosting IndyCar races.
Versus and Golf would certainly be overseen by Dick Ebersol, the chairman of NBC Universal Sports, who has never had a sports cable network to tinker with (the expanding Universal Sports channel is distributed through NBC stations and affiliates); he would no doubt quickly strip Versus of its current crop of late-night infomercials.
Mike Chiapetta writes about the MMA angle that the NYT sleeps on:
Ebersol, who has run NBC's sports division since 1989, has at least historically not been a fan of mixed martial arts.
I worked at NBC Sports from 2006 to early 2009. During that time, there were at least a handful of sports executives that had interest in exploring the idea of putting MMA on the air. Ebersol, however, was not one of them. Eventually, however, Strikeforce inked a deal to broadcast MMA on late-night Saturdays, but the deal was brokered through the NBC Entertainment division, not NBC Sports.
Either way, if Ebersol does take the reigns of the new NBC/Comcast sports department, he is going to inherit MMA. As FanHouse reported on Wednesday, the WEC confirmed that a new extension has officially been signed with Versus.
Given that it's unlikely that Versus -- even under new management -- would break a newly signed deal, there is the chance for a very positive relationship emerging. The Times' piece suggests that Comcast will use Versus to challenge ESPN for sports cable supremacy and perhaps rechristen the channel with a name like NBC Sports Cable to give it a stronger brand presence. The WEC has generated some of Versus' best ratings over time, and could take on added importance in such a scenario.
A legitimate content war between the goliath ESPN and the suddenly deep-pocketed Versus would have the two vying for top properties across the sports landscape. And because NBC/Comcast's channels will feature both Bellator and the WEC, it might suddenly make more sense for the executives at ESPN or FOX to welcome UFC into their sports lineup. No one will want to be left out of the party, especially with the best dance partner still available. In that instance, Zuffa would emerge a double-winner. It may sound far-fetched, but Zuffa has had at least preliminary talks with both networks in the past, and an NBC/Comcast merger is nothing short of a declaration of war in the TV business.
Change = opportunity. Zuffa has been trying to get the right network deal for a long time, this could be their opportunity.