Earlier this week Richard Sandomir wrote in the New York Timesabout the EPL’s impending round of television negotiations. NBC acquired the rights for three years beginning with the 2013-14 season for $250 million. Last week the EPL revealed its packages available for bid by broadcasters inside the United Kingdom, which now includes some matches on Friday. The world package — which includes all 380 matches unlike the segmented UK packages — isn’t up for bid until spring 2015 at the earliest.
In the piece, Sandomir casually dropped this little nugget about NBCSN:
Premier League matches, shown largely on weekend mornings, are averaging 414,000 viewers so far this season — more than the 342,000 watching N.H.L. games on the network.
There are obviously a couple ways to look at this and as we know television ratings don’t always tell the whole story, although with the EPL in America it’s a bit different since the game is only available through television vs. attending the games in person. There’s also the time factor of when the games are broadcast. The EPL — on Saturday and Sunday mornings along with occasional midweek afternoon games — faces little, if any other competition in terms of live sports aside from the late Saturday kickoff at 12:30 p.m. which butts into NCAA football and basketball. Through its first 1.5 years NBCSN has done an excellent job, too, of making soccer fans want to stick with the channel from the first kickoff to the final whistle … and sometimes beyond that with their highlight packages.
Nighttime NHL games are shown at the same time as the NBA, NCAA basketball, other NHL games and even Monday night football. Much like baseball on television, hockey is a regional sport meaning casual viewers are likely less-inclined to watch two teams play whom they don’t have a vested rooting interest. Put it this way, if NBCSN is airing Penguins-Flyers and you’re a Red Wings fan and they also play at the same time, which game are you going to tune in to watch?
Turning this into soccer (EPL) vs. NHL really doesn’t accomplish much, either, although the numbers do stand out.
The better way to look at this little reveal is that when the American television rights for the EPL come up for auction they are going to generate some massive bids. As we know, as people continue to cut the cord on cable, live sports hold even more importance. In May, the final day of the EPL season drew close to five million viewers, more than double the previous year on Fox and ESPN. A Nov. 22 broadcast of Arsenal-Manchester United airing on NBC drew a record 1.4 million viewers in the U.S. So by most metrics, Americans like to watch the EPL — not necessarily all soccer leagues — in increasing numbers.
When the rights come up for bid it’s hard to see any scenario where Fox allows NBC to out-bid it for a second time. Normally you’d think ESPN would go all-in on soccer after losing the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Fox, but the Worldwide Leader would end up with too many conflicts during the Saturday/Sunday EPL broadcast windows for it to commit such a massive outlay of money. Perhaps ESPN and Fox could work out a deal in the past, when Fox sub-leased games to ESPN, considering the two broadcast entities have been fairly cordial when it comes to soccer.
The irony here is that Fox formerly owned the EPL rights and even had an entire network — Fox Soccer — built around it, but couldn’t for whatever reason gain the growth NBC has seen in the last 20 months — NBC’s clever marketing strategy and first-rate, intelligent production likely factors. (NBC also shows every game via Premier League Extra on cable or through streaming at no addition charge.) Now that Fox Sports 1 and 2 exist, the company needs even more content and EPL games on weekend mornings would be an anchor and a draw, allowing them to pull some sports fans away from ESPN and lead in to Fox college football, perhaps.
Fox and NBC jointly paid $8.2 billion in 2013 to televise NASCAR for the next 10 years despite the sports ratings declining 47 percent since 2005 — if you needed another illustration of the important of live sports in today’s television climate. Given the EPL’s anchor-type status along with the NHL at NBCSN, the network is going to fight to keep the property.
Down the road there is definitely a point where you’re not going to get any more viewers to watch a sporting event at 8:30 a.m. Eastern on Sunday morning, but that seems a few years off. Someone is going to end up paying an arm and a leg to air the EPL in America starting in 2016-17 and they’ll be quite happy to do so.