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World Championship Blackout


I have long been puzzled by the oddity of millions of Americans becoming rabid fans of track and field, swimming, and a host of other sports on a quadrennial basis. Heck, we’ll watch anything if it’s held under the Olympic banner. Rhythmic gymnastics? Sure. Don’t want to miss that keen competition between the Russians and the Belarusians.

But odder still is our lack of resistance when these sports disappear in the intermediate years. I imagine it would be a surprise to many Olympic fans to learn that the participants in these sports don’t just spend those years practicing, waiting for the next Olympics to roll around. In fact, each year brings a rich family of major competitions. Some sports even have world championships, drawing the best from around the world to participate in competitions every bit as fierce and prestigious as the Olympics. Not as rewarding financially, but just as difficult to win.

Speaking of which, the International Association of Athletics Federations, or IAAF, is holding the 2013 World Championships this very week in Moscow. All the usual stars are there. Usain Bolt just won the 100m yesterday, though you might have missed it. Kirani James, who won the 400m world championship two years ago and the Olympic gold medal last year, will be aiming for another win tomorrow. If this were the Olympics, we’d be glued to the TV.

Time zone difficulties aside, I would gladly spend this week glued to the TV. I had a bit of a conflict over the weekend, what with the PGA Championship taking place at Oak Hill in Rochester. The extraordinary golf clinic Jason Dufner put on yesterday kept me entranced. Last night I shifted my focus to track and studied the broadcast schedule, ready to program the DVR for the overnight events so that I could watch them later each day.

Which of our hundreds of cable channels is NBC’s Universal Sports Network anyway? Having failed to find it in a search through the guide on the TV, I logged into Comcast on my laptop and searched. I still couldn’t spot it. So I went to the Universal website, which has a link at the top to “sign-in with cable/sat provider.” Cool. This would let me find the channel, and also permit me to stream the events on the computer.

But Comcast didn’t pop up. In fact, hardly any cable companies do. How can this be? Doesn’t Comcast own NBC? Wouldn’t they put all the NBC channels in their cable package?

It seems the situation is more complicated. An article from two Januarys ago in the LA Times with the title “Universal Sports channel didn’t disappear, it just seems that way” offers an explanation.

[Universal] was not technically a cable channel but instead was a digital broadcast channel. Locally, KNBC-TV provides some of its channel capacity to Universal Sports for distribution purposes.

Now, Universal Sports wants to be paid by distributors for carriage and is being offered as a stand-alone cable network. So far, satellite broadcaster DirecTV [and now Dish as well] is the only multichannel video program distributor to have cut a deal with the channel, but its officers say they are confident that they’ll be in 15 million to 20 million homes by the end of 2012. Previously, the channel was available in about 40 million homes.

Unlike many sports channels, Universal Sports is not asking distributors to carry the network on their most popular programming package, typically known as expanded basic or digital. Instead, it is seeking to be part of specialty packages that consumers pay extra to receive if they want the channel.

Great. So, no world championships for me. NBC has limited weekend coverage. Universal has exclusive coverage of all events otherwise.

Worse, no world championships for just about anyone in the US. What a way to kill interest in the sport, making the biennial showcase invisible! Maybe track really doesn’t exist in non-Olympic years.

Categories: Television, Track
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