Back when I was posting more regularly about the sports TV wars – in part because the wars themselves were burning brighter and the stakes seemed higher – a point I routinely made was that, as good as the wars would be for the largest, most popular entities with content that could attract large audiences to sports networks, they would be an absolute boon to lesser entities that might not otherwise attract much of an audience at all, or even enough to justify their existence, as the glut of sports networks looked for properties to fill out the rest of their time. Truly tiny leagues and conferences didn’t see much of a bump from the wars (a TV deal with CBS Sports Network only kept the UFL afloat for an additional half season) but lower-mid-tier leagues, the sort that could attract audiences approaching a million on broadcast and regularly top several hundred thousand on networks the size of FS1 and NBCSN, saw their visibility vastly increased. As I explained in my book The Game to Show the Games (and as expanded upon here previously) no sport benefited from the glut of sports networks more than soccer, even before the sports TV wars properly became a thing, as a veritable soccer boom enveloped English-speaking America driven in large measure by coverage of the English Premier League on Fox Soccer Channel and its predecessor Fox Sports World, driving NBC to not only break the bank for Premier League rights but to make it as much of a tentpole for NBCSN as the NHL.
If no sport benefited more than soccer from the sports TV boom, no single deal demonstrated the power of TV to elevate a sport more than the Premier League’s deal with NBC. NBC’s high-quality coverage, semi-regular games on broadcast television, and dizzying array of games on NBCSN only scratched the surface of what NBC would do for the Premier League in America. Perhaps more remarkable was NBC’s decision to place all the games it couldn’t fit on its linear networks on an array of “Extra Time” channels and available for streaming for any subscriber to a cable package that included NBCSN. American viewers could watch every single Premier League game live, something people in England itself couldn’t say, if only because the Premier League contracts there were arranged to protect gate revenues, especially at lower-tier clubs.
This week, NBC announced that those games not airing on NBC’s linear services would now be available on a “Premier League Pass” subscription service, no longer free with NBCSN. The headline on Re/code touting this deal focused on the “no cable subscription required” aspect of the service, which is a bit disingenuous considering games on NBC’s cable networks aren’t part of the deal, but not really any different from people who get ESPN3 from their Internet provider (or who sign up for ESPN’s long-delayed direct-to-consumer offering) and get to watch mid-major college sports and less popular events without access to ESPN’s actual linear networks. Despite its uselessness to cord-cutters, though, I was surprised to see headlines on more soccer-focused sites bemoaning what a big step backward this was for NBC’s coverage of the Premier League, with Vice Sports going so far as to claim that the move of what it admits is “the crappiest third” of Premier League games to a premium service amounts to NBC “kill[ing] America’s EPL Golden Age“.
Certainly for Premier League fans used to signing up for the cable bundle, this is a huge step backwards. $50 is a relatively steep price, though for an entire season of Premier League games it compares favorably to American sports leagues’ pay-per-view/out-of-market/streaming services, which often top $100. And it’s not like Premier League fans can save money by just signing up for Premier League Pass, since again, it doesn’t include games on NBC’s linear networks. But it’s hard to declare the loss of the least interesting, most perfunctory matchups, that were already consigned to streaming and overflow channels, as completely undermining the visibility and value of the Premier League on American television, especially since given the ongoing shifts in the media landscape, a move like this may have been inevitable. Even if Extra Time wasn’t really “too good to be true” even at the time, setting aside specialized channels and propping up the cable bundle even more was becoming difficult to justify. With Premier League Pass, NBC is pivoting towards the sports distribution system of the future, one that more specifically targets fans of various sports, that sports networks in general will have to pivot towards.
As such, I’m not sure I agree with Richard Deitsch that this is entirely about monetizing a more expensive Premier League rights deal; if so it would raise the question of whether the deal was really worth it to begin with. I think there’s a bigger picture to look at here. Going back to its days as Versus, NBCSN has staked its territory around providing comprehensive coverage of sports that might get shorter shrift at ESPN or Fox, and that’s a territory that lends itself well to providing services oriented directly at those niche sports fans. The NBC Sports Gold service already sells access to many of those niche sports bundled together for up to $70 a year, but depending on how many butthurt Premier League fans (especially those that have attached themselves to teams further down the table) swallow their pride and pony up, Premier League Pass could easily make them more money. I could easily see NBC as laying the groundwork for the day it may ultimately have to shutter NBCSN in its current form and fold many of its rights into networks like CNBC or USA as the cable bundle finally utterly collapses, folding together many of its mid-to-lower tier rights into a direct-to-consumer offering targeted at the niche sports fans NBCSN serves today. I may have felt Fox was better positioned to run down ESPN than anyone else (certainly Fox themselves did) before it turned out Fox didn’t quite have the quality of rights to convince people to turn to FS1 on a regular basis, and I’m skeptical that anyone other than ESPN will survive the collapse of the cable bundle and shift to Internet streaming, but NBC may be better positioned than any of the alternatives to pivot to marketing a national service directly to the consumer, offering a simple value proposition to fans of niche sports (ignoring the question of the fate of local sports and what it would mean for Fox and NBC). With Premier League Pass, NBC is building the groundwork and subscriber base for whenever the day may come when NBC Sports Gold has to become its main offering to sports fans.
Ultimately, I think the effect of the Internet will be to collapse any intermediate distinctions preventing a step down from the ESPN level directly to pure streaming, with the only distinction being between the resources and quality poured into that streaming, with the likes of Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, and potentially Google on the high end, down to lesser offerings oriented towards more niche audiences like Premier League Pass, all the way down to free streams where there’s no room for monetization and no budget for any but the most rudimentary setups at all. For the truly tiniest leagues, I’m already seeing signs of streaming, of various degrees of monetization, being a boon to them; when the number of channels is effectively limitless, there’s little reason not to put up a stream of every game you have so long as you have the resources for it, especially when it comes to leagues popular in their home countries that just need to export their feeds to the States. But for these mid-tier leagues that have become used to comprehensive coverage subsidized by non-sports fans who continue to subscribe to the cable bundle, the party is over. Even if you believe that the most apocalyptic scenarios still involve the vast majority of Americans continuing to subscribe to some sort of comprehensive cable bundle for the foreseeable future, there’s still clear evidence of the fear of cord-cutting and sports-free packages driving sports networks to reduce their investment in mid-tier properties that don’t drive enough viewership and subscriptions on their own to justify the level of expense the cable bundle has inflated their perceived value to. Services like Premier League Pass are the first sign of sports networks sending a message that it’s time for sports fans to pay more of their fair share of the boom of sports television that has erupted in recent years.