Monday, July 8, 2013

Will NBC’s European Sports Gamble Pay Off?

The Tour de France. The Scottish Open. Formula 1. The English Premier League.

Is that the summer calendar of European sports or NBC’s sports lineup for July and August?

It’s both.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Comcast’s gamble on the NBC Sports Network, and NBC Sports proper, wasn’t supposed to take them overseas.

With the NHL firmly established, the sky seemed the limit when the NBC Sports Network was officially born out of Versus. The sports media was smitten. The rumors began swirling. NBC started making their pitches. Yet one after another, they failed.

The Pac-12? Thwarted by a rare Fox/ESPN partnership.

The NFL? The league decided to keep the added Thursday night games on its own network.

MLB? Stayed with Fox.

NBC Sports Network and European SportsThe Big East? Disintegrated before it even had a chance.

It reached the point where even the Mountain West left the channel – leaving it with no major college football or college basketball. When the NHL went dark in late 2012, the gaping holes in NBCSN’s programming became painfully evident. There just wasn’t anything there.

It became a punchline when Fox, almost out of nowhere, made a bold move to be the ESPN competitor that NBCSN failed to become. Armed with a plethora of valuable commodities spread out on Fox-owned channels, Fox Sports 1 will launch in August with far more live programming than NBCSN has ever been able to produce.

UFC. Big 12 & Pac-12 football. MLB. Big East basketball. NASCAR. The Champions League. Fox Sports 1 isn’t quite in ESPN’s stratosphere yet – but it’s at least in the same zip code.

Facing a daunting, nearly impossible challenge, NBCSN has quietly been making the only move it could to remain relevant. You hear the phrase all the time in business – “emerging markets.” With ESPN entrenched in the biggest sporting events in North America – Monday Night Football, the NBA Playoffs, the new College Football playoff, etc. – they are set. As I mentioned in my piece on their lack of interest in the new American Athletic Conference, they no longer need to find emerging sports. They have the emerged.

Similarly, Fox Sports 1 is going after the big fish, flush with cash and a stable of ready-for-consumption properties that have already established an audience. Fox Sports 1 is not going to waste its time building up leagues. Rupert Murdoch doesn’t succeed by enacting 5-year plans. He succeeds by the here and now.

So Comcast and NBCSN had to regroup. The major North American sports are accounted for – and will be for the foreseeable future. The channel has a league to serve as its backbone in the NHL. And the recent success of the NHL is now the blueprint for NBCSN’s possible success.

The channel looked across the pond and found what it was looking for – precious live sporting events. Starting in August, NBCSN will bombard you with English Premier League football. Since this spring, the channel has been all over Formula 1. This summer, its coverage of the Tour de France has been extensive and extraordinary.

NBC, as a network and an organization, has basically become a laughingstock – a distance fourth in the broadcast battles and frequently fifth behind even Univision. It has consistently failed to produce sitcoms and dramas that people watch. I love Parks & Recreation but it gets about 1/6th the audience the Big Bang Theory does.

But NBC has always done two things extremely well – sports and news*. Its nightly newscast with Brian Williams is still the undisputed champion and when there is a huge news event – think the Boston Marathon bombing – people will always turn to NBC News first.

*If this were 2011, I would’ve added in “morning shows.” Then they made Ann Curry cry and now we can’t watch Today anymore.

Likewise, its sports department has always produced top-notch coverage with a stable of big, championship events. With the development of NBCSN, NBC Sports figured out that even if its primetime lineup wasn’t of Seinfeldian glory – it could still build up a sports league.

The NHL is now riding the wave of being the golden child at a major network. Its ratings are trending far above anything that Fox or ESPN were able to produce. They just completed the most-watched Stanley Cup Final ever. Yes, as in ever in history.

Will NBC’s magic touch spill over to its European sports, namely the EPL?

Based on early returns, I have to say yes. NBC is promoting the league more vigorously than Fox Soccer or ESPN ever did. I don’t watch NBC often but when I do, I almost always see an EPL ad. The date is firmly implanted in my brain – August 17.

There will be interest when the new season kicks off. Will the momentum carry throughout the season? Will NBC be able to navigate the treacherous trap between educating the masses on soccer and providing meaningful insight to the real fans?

There are many questions to be answered but one has already been – how will NBCSN compete with ESPN and Fox Sports 1?

They’ve decided to take the road less traveled. Those weekend mornings when you’re drinking your coffee, eating your bacon and sitting on your couch – don’t watch SportsCenter, watch soccer. Don’t pay attention to your local news, watch Formula 1.

The long-term plan is obvious. The NHL is NBCSN’s thoroughbred that will keep them in the game – if not regularly competing with ESPN and Fox Sports 1 – until the next round of sports media contracts come up. It will use the same formula on boosting the NHL’s ratings on the EPL and Formula 1, which can be used in tandem to beef up the sagging ratings of Major League Soccer and Indy Car Racing.

NBCSN is in survival mode for the next few years. Thanks to its European imports, they have a fighting chance to stay relevant.

Will they? We’ll start to find out on August 17.

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