Comcast's NBCU is launching a year-round Olympics sports channel

Comcast Corp.-owned NBCUniversal will launch an Olympics-only linear cable channel in 2017 that could quickly reach tens of millions of homes, industry experts said Thursday.

The new channel also comes at a time of unease for the sports-media industry over sports-TV costs and ratings and for ESPN, which has shed millions of subscribers.

Pay-TV officials say that sports content, especially live action, is the glue holding together the traditional pay-TV industry. But sports channels and TV rights also are driving up cable- and satellite-TV bills.

Neal Pilson, a former CBS Sports executive and now consultant for sports television, media, and marketing, said Thursday he did not think the new channel would cost a lot but it also would "not be a huge revenue generator."

More likely, it will help market the Olympics between the Games even though "Olympic sports in non-Olympic years don't have a history of good ratings," Pilson said.

The new Olympics channel, a partnership of NBCUniversal, the U.S. Olympic Committee, and the International Olympic Committee, has already secured distribution into homes at AT&T/DirecTV, the nation's largest pay-TV operator, Gary Zenkel, president of NBC Olympics, said on a conference call.

The Olympics Channel: Home of Team USA also will be favorably viewed at No. 2 pay-TV operator Comcast. Besides owning NBCUniversal, Comcast has agreed to pay $12 billion for the U.S. TV rights for the Winter and Summer Games through 2032. 

Comcast also announced recently that it would be an "official sponsor" of Team USA, the U.S. Olympics organization, so that the cable operator can use the Olympic rings in its advertising.

Zenkel declined to disclose the ownership shares in the new channel but said it was a "partnership" between NBCUniversal and the U.S. and international Olympics organizations. The new channel itself will be part of the NBCUniversal bundle of cable channels that includes the popular networks USA, Bravo, and CNBC. As part of this bundle, NBCUniversal will have leverage in forcing the new channel onto pay-TV systems. 

The International Olympic Committee is attempting to create channels around the globe. The international organization also will contribute about 250 hours of content a year to the new channel.

"This is fantastic news for our national governing bodies," said Scott Blackmun, chief executive officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee. "It's a wonderful way to turbo-charge one of the fastest-growing fan bases out there. It's a great platform not only for Olympic sports but original programming."