Friday marked the return of the Premier League to viewers worldwide, with the world’s best team, Liverpool, taking on Norwich City.
I’m not here to convince viewers to watch soccer, but I am willing to plant my flag on the Prem being one of the best sports products to enjoy from your couch. Just over a decade ago, fans of the product had to go to a pub — probably one that specifically catered to soccer fans — and hope that the game they wanted to watch was on satellite. Now, NBC has made itself synonymous with the world’s top league.
Arguably more impressive is that many would argue that the U.S. rights holders do a better job than their Brit counterparts. Relying less on sensational conversation over player movement or tabloid-esque storylines, NBC’s desk team is led by the fantastic Rebecca Lowe, who has also parlayed her tremendous work into being the face of the network’s Summer and Winter Olympic Games coverage, and anchors coverage buoyed by several of the sport’s best play-by-play and color commentary combinations.
Comcast’s acquisition in October 2018 of Sky Sports is also set to optimize matchups going forward on the NBC parent network for the sport’s relative “prime time” on Sundays here stateside, 12:30 p.m. Eastern Time. Considering it’s estimated that almost 40 million more people in the U.S. have NBC than NBC Sports, it’s a smart move to draw the most eyes to a prize that the company is paying $1 billion for over a six-year deal.
And yet, superb as it may be, the best coverage provider (the same could be said of NBC’s PGA and NHL work) of one of the fastest-growing sports products in America still has done its market a disservice.
The popularity of the Premier League has skyrocketed since NBC won its bidding rights. Now starting their seventh season with those rights, average viewership has more than doubled since 2012-13. In the first handful of years, subscribers of participating cable and satellite providers could watch the games that weren’t being broadcast on national television on the internet for free. Now, for the third year, fans have to pay extra for NBC Sports Gold’s Premier League pass (either $40 or $65 depending on the package tier) to get most matches.
Fans of the NBA, or especially the NFL, probably have little sympathy for this premise. “I’ve been paying $100 per season for the same thing and that’s for 16 games!” But the MLB, NFL and NBA markets, to some degree, have been around for decades and are largely based on factors within their own control. Soccer, whether it’s MLS or the Premier League, is going to continue to grow by good margins in this country. Why bottleneck that growth at the expense of dollars now?
Combat sports are balancing this act, too. I wrote some in this space about boxing and the UFC’s visibility several weeks ago. Drawing fans to pay-per-view requires manufacturing athletes that are worth parting with money to watch, and that means getting on broadcast channels like FOX or CBS and drawing in new eyes. Boxing has done a better job of it in recent months, while the success of UFC’s move to ESPN — don’t underestimate the value of 31 events on the flagship FOX network from 2011 to 2018 — is yet to be decided.
These are all great products, but are leagues and promoters forcing the hand of the consumer with so many choices? Having the option for more is great, sure. When I was younger and moved away from the Kansas City area, I can recall at the time how few options there were to try and watch but a select amount of a team’s games, save for the Chiefs. Those times have changed, and watching more games either as a transplant or just a megafan has become possible, but the cost of enjoying more than a couple sports is rising, and it’s not just in the price.
Cord-cutting cable seems like a no-brainer right now for the sports fan, but I wonder for how much longer. Packaging, say, YouTubeTV (my definitive choice of a cord-cutting alternative) with ESPN+, which now includes a ton of college games that used to be free for regular ESPN subscribers, is still going to run somewhere close to half of the average cable bill, and that’s fine. Sports fans in particular, however, should be skeptical of how long some of these alternatives will stay as well-priced as they are.
At the same time, sports television rights continue to trend up in every direction. The NBA’s most recent nine-year deal with ESPN and Turner, worth over $2.6 billion annually, a major impetus for the league’s rising salary cap and free agent fluidity, is just one example, and the NBA on TNT is another gold standard in presentation, for what it’s worth. Sports eat up hundreds of hours of prime-time programming, and viewers prefer to watch them live, so no matter where we want to watch them, there’s only so much saving to be done.
I do wonder, as we continue to need more and more services to satisfy our viewing habits, how willing the savvy, younger sports audience will be to go the legitimate route to fulfill all of its appetite. I have friends ranging from their early 20s to mid-30s, and nearly all of them have cut the cord for a live streaming TV service like Sling TV, Hulu or YouTube TV. As fragmented as sports viewing is, a majority of them also turn to a bootleg link for a playoff game or a fight, and you can bet that link is shared amongst us all. While most of these services offer local channels in their packages, FOX and NBC are unavailable in plenty of major markets through Sling TV, which remains the most popular for now.
The NFL’s greatest asset is the ease and availability for most fans to watch their team’s season in its entirety on one local channel, and most other games on those same channels included in almost all basic cable packages. For most other sports, though, the continued fragmentation of content for a customer base that seems less and less concerned with pirating a must-watch event here and there should be a worry. Piracy will always loom in the background, but leagues and sports as a whole will be best served by getting content to as many fans as possible in the same place, while not pricing those fans out.
Convenience, as it always has been, is key.
Bryan can be followed on Twitter @BryanEversonMF.