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Comcast bids for Olympic-coverage rights

LAUSANNE, Switzerland - On the eve of their effort to win the television rights for the Olympic Games beginning in 2014, Comcast Corp. chairman and CEO Brian L. Roberts and his top officers made final preparations Monday, and did it behind closed doors at the handsome Hotel Beau Rivage Palace.

LAUSANNE, Switzerland - On the eve of their effort to win the television rights for the Olympic Games beginning in 2014, Comcast Corp. chairman and CEO Brian L. Roberts and his top officers made final preparations Monday, and did it behind closed doors at the handsome Hotel Beau Rivage Palace.

The executives of the Philadelphia cable giant are camped out on the shores of Lake Geneva in this world-class resort by virtue of their purchase of NBCUniversal Inc. in January. How Comcast handles the bidding Tuesday - an aggressive offer to ensure that NBC retains rights it has held since 1988, or a more prudent bid that reflects no stomach for losing $220 million, as the network did when it broadcast the 2010 Winter Games from Vancouver, Canada - is likely to be as interesting as the outcome itself.

Almost certainly, Comcast's performance here will be read as a forecast for how the company will manage NBC.

The Comcast team, headed by Roberts, NBC top executive Steve Burke, and co-chief financial officer Michael Angelakis, must outmaneuver two heavyweight competitors: the Walt Disney Co., which owns the ABC and ESPN networks, and Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., represented by Fox Sports.

Unlike the Comcast bosses, the Disney and Fox officials were on display Monday within the black-glass headquarters of the International Olympic Committee. Comcast's rivals seemed confident.

Fox made its presentation to the Olympic officials Monday. After three hours, David Hill, the head of Fox Sports, emerged and declared the meeting room was full of "good karma."

George Bodenheimer, president of ESPN, which will make its presentation Tuesday morning, followed by Comcast, told reporters, "I feel confident that what we're proposing will grow the Olympics movement." The ESPN executives were at the IOC building to rehearse their presentation.

The bidding is a tricky affair. When all three presentations have been concluded - Comcast's ends at 2:30 p.m. in Lausanne (8:30 a.m. in Philadelphia) - each contender will slip a sealed bid into a plexiglass box. The bidders must make offers for the broadcast rights for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, and the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. But the bidders are invited to make offers on the next four Olympics, including the Olympics of 2018 and 2020, if they wish.

Fox's Hill announced that his company would bid on all four Olympic Games.

The IOC will then review the bids, and the results are likely to be announced in the early evening, though the drama could go late into the night or continue Wednesday.

Hill said he preferred to bid on the four Games because it would allow the company to recoup its investment in new technology and equipment to produce the Games over a longer period - eight years, instead of four. The Olympic organization has traditionally bid the games in four-year cycles.

After a two-year delay of the rights auction because of the weak advertising market in the United States and the uncertainty over Comcast's deal to acquire control of NBCUniversal, the mood seemed buoyant and full of expectation at Olympic headquarters. U.S. broadcast rights are the single largest source of revenue for the Olympics organization, and the funds for those rights help finance stadiums for host cities.

"We believe the timing is right and it's time to get the show on the road," Timo Lumme, an Olympics managing director overseeing TV rights, said in an interview. "We are looking for a very competitive process."

The auction is the first mega-sports deal for Comcast as the new NBC owner, and it will tackle it without legendary NBC executive Dick Ebersol, who resigned in May. It was believed that Ebersol's personal relationship with Olympics officials could be an advantage for Comcast. Hill tapped into the Ebersol controversy, noting: "I think the Olympic movement owes him a great debt. . . . He could get emotion out of a stone."

Comcast officials have said that NBC sports-rights deals have to be profitable, and this attitude may have caused friction with Ebersol. NBC could lose an estimated $500 million on the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver and 2012 Summer Games in London, experts say. Under former corporate parent General Electric, NBC paid a total of $2.2 billion for those Games, which included a GE corporate sponsorship.

Comcast holds the upper hand in the bidding because of NBC's long association with the Olympics, many industry observers believe. Others, though, note that a conservative Comcast bid could be topped by either Fox or Disney, both of which would like to wrest the Games away from the rival network.

Fox's Hill seemed relaxed as he walked through the white-marbled lobby shortly before 2 p.m. with a gaggle of Fox executives. He was dressed in an open-neck pink shirt and blue blazer.

"It's eight years to the day that we made our last pitch," Hill said to a small group of reporters. Fox lost out to NBC in 2003, its $1.3 billion offer falling short of NBC's $2.2 billion.

Security was tight for the Fox presentation, with participants surrendering cellphones before the show.

Comcast and Disney are scheduled for two-hour presentations to Olympics officials beginning Tuesday morning. The heads of both companies, Comcast's Roberts and Disney's Bob Iger, are expected to participate.

Disney also bid and lost in 2003. Its bid was considered a revenue-sharing agreement in which Disney and the Olympics organization would split the advertising and didn't carry a specific dollar figure.

The IOC typically bids two Games at one time, but this year will be different.

"Everything is open," Lumme said. "We are only masters of our destiny in that we created the process. They will bid in sealed envelopes, and we will react to them when we see them."

Neal Pilson, a former president of CBS Sports, said, "I think Comcast is the leader in the clubhouse, and I still do."