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Could Comcast/NBC Rival ESPN?

The widely reported possibility that Comcast will take over NBC Universal raises lots of TV sports scenarios, including the fun notion that it would be big enough to pick a fair fight with the omnivorous ESPN.

Comcast, the USA's largest cable TV operator, made a surprise (and unsuccessful) takeover bid for ESPN parent Disney in 2004 in hopes of creating the world's biggest media company. If it can get NBCU, the General Electric division that includes NBC and its various cable channels, it could shake up TV sports.

For starters, Comcast's national sports channels - Golf Channel and Versus - might provide more outlets for what NBC already has. Letting Johnny Miller air it out on TGC during NBC's U.S. Open might be interesting, and Versus could give NBC yet another cable TV platform for its Olympic TV tonnage. Versus could air pregame shows for Notre Dame games - like CBS' cable TV College Sports Network does for SEC football games. Or, as SportsBusiness Journal reported, Versus might air some Notre Dame games because NBC's deal allows some of those games to air on cable. That would have been a good idea Saturday, when Notre Dame's win against Washington State on NBC was the week's lowest-rated show on the four major broadcast networks.

But where's the TV sports killer app in all of this? It's hard to say. Working with NBC Sports and its Olympic-themed Universal Sports channel could help Versus, but it faces an uphill climb to approach cable channels already with lots of big-time sports. Versus ranks 67th among cable TV channels with 63.6 million TV households, compared with about 99 million apiece for ESPN and ESPN2, which also have lots of TV sports draws locked up in long-term deals. An example of the gap in drawing power: On Oct. 24, Versus aired a solid football matchup in TCU-Brigham Young and averaged 261,000 households - opposite ESPN's 3.93 million for Florida-Mississippi State and ESPN2's 1.36 million for Auburn-LSU.

And if Comcast makes a frontal assault on the TV rights to big sports events, it might be a Pyrrhic victory: To buy them away from other networks, it might have to end up spending more money than such events are realistically worth. But you never know. Comcast is enough of a giant that it could end up a giant-killer.

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