Last week, the NBC Sports Network announced that through an $83 million bid, they have secured the broadcast rights in the United States for the English Premier League (EPL) for three years beginning with the 2013-2014 season.
However, this move means more than soccer fans finding the “beautiful game” on another channel. This move has some long-term implications for not only the EPL but for the popularity of soccer in the United States, and for the futures of ESPN, Fox Sports, and NBC Sports Network?
Before we get into the details, Americans are going to need to understand one crucial fact; while the NFL is currently the world’s most profitable sports league, the EPL is the most popular. While the NFL’s television presence in foreign (excluding Canada) markets is little more than novelties like the occasional regular-season game played in London or the Super Bowl, there’s has been a bare-knuckle brawl for the overseas broadcasting rights to the EPL. This means in very short order, the EPL is going to replace the NFL as the world’s most profitable sports league. That will become important later.
Americans who believe the NFL will always be the most popular sport in this country might consider this a wake-up call. Not only did NBC make the biggest bid anybody has ever made for the U.S. rights to broadcast the EPL, they raised the price of poker by nearly quadrupling the bid that Fox Sports made back in 2009. This took everybody else out of the running, before NBC Sports Network was given the deal, ESPN, Fox Sports, BeIN, and Al Jazeera were all told they would not be getting the contract.
That’s a pretty bold move. All those other networks had at some point broadcast the EPL, and Al Jazeera was actually the best English-language coverage available. But the EPL is building a model based on getting a major piece of its revenue from foreign television broadcasting rights. These rights totaled $1.4 billion dollars of revenue for the EPL over the past three seasons, and that number is only going up. The country in which the EPL is the least popular is the U.S., but the fact that NBC Sports jumped the bid nearly four times over only tells you what the future value of EPL rights will be.
While the NFL and the ESPNs of the world are doing everything they can to kill their own popularity, the EPL is doing exactly the opposite. Here’s why…the EPL realizes you can’t force Americans to buy a cable channel.
That’s really what the NFL is doing with the NFL Network and it’s host of Thursday games which can’t be seen in half the households in America. ESPN is doing the same thing with ESPN Desportes, which is where much of ESPN’s soccer coverage ends up. Fox Soccer Channel is also in the high-number hinterlands of the average cable package. Don’t even ask me where you can find BeIN or Al Jazeera on your cable box.
The fact that NBC Sports Network is on basic cable will lead to an increase of ratings, especially since for the price they paid, NBCSN is not going to relegate prime games like Manchester United vs. Chelsea to the 7:30 a.m. time slot. They know you can put Stoke City vs. Queen’s Park Rangers there. Fox figured out you can run EPL games tape-delay at 4 p.m. ET, not to mention we live in a DVR world. Hell, ESPN figured out tape-delay works thirty years ago when they had the rights to the NCAA Basketball tournament. Soccer fans in America are willing to adapt to the time difference because they enjoy the game; this is one of the fundamental misunderstandings the NFL has about trying to be popular in Europe. This will not work in reverse.
The Fox thing is important, because since soccer is growing in popularity and NBC is largely shut-out in the “big” American sports right now; all they’ve got now is Notre Dame football, horse racing, and the Olympics. Yet, other than the Olympics, all those contracts will come due for bidding in the next few years, and until then, NBC and it’s Sports Network can use the most popular sports league in the world to boost it’s standing, and therefore make more money, and therefore become a player when it comes to bidding for contracts.
Fox did already blaze the trail for the EPL being broadcast on over-the-air network television, but NBC could really make a run with this, since as we’ve already mentioned, the EPL is growing in popularity and NBC is almost certain to recoup the large bid they laid down for the rights. Granted, there’s a chance this could backfire and NBC Sports could take a loss on this venture, but that would require soccer to quit growing in popularity. That’s not going to happen.
While this is a big win for NBC, its a big loss for some others, not the least of which is ESPN. The World Wide Leader was once the bastion for soccer in the United States, but has now lost the Champions League, the World Cup, and now the EPL. This means that after World Cup 2014 and Euro 2016, ESPN will have no current soccer contracts. What’s even worse for ESPN is the option of sub-contracting games (like they did with Fox Sports) will be off the table since it is clear NBC Sports Network intends to compete directly with ESPN. Naturally, this means ESPN will have another temper tantrum and refuse to cover soccer, giving it the same cold shoulder it currently gives to the NHL.
For all intents and purposes, Fox Soccer Channel will be destroyed. Despite the fact it will still have the big European tournaments, such as the Champions League, the FA Cup, and the Europa League, those simply do not have the week-in, week-out attraction during the soccer season the EPL provides. No EPL means filling 38 weekends per year with the Australian A-League and Scottish Premier League (a league which just lost one of its biggest clubs to an insolvency issue). That’s not going to work. Without regular top European league broadcasts, Fox Soccer’s situation will soon become dire, because it is a premium cable channel requiring a sports package. Frankly, to even hard-core soccer fans, it just became not worth the price.
Let’s get to the bottom line. NBC Sports Network is quietly putting together a realistic competitor for ESPN, and I’m all for it. While many American major league sports broadcasting rights are tied up in long-term deals, and with the uncertainty with the NHL, NBC needs some top tier sports coverage to use as a cornerstone while it sits and waits. What better for that than the world’s most popular league? Along with it’s Major League Soccer contract, NBC Sports Network will become the home for soccer in America.