SBJ/February 27-March 5, 2017/Media

NBCSN stays true to its rights, picks up subs

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NBC Sports Network is in more homes than ever before, an unusual feat at a time when most other cable sports networks are dropping millions of subscribers per year.

Thanks to a new deal with DirecTV, which moved the channel to a more widely distributed tier, NBCSN jumped to a distribution figure of around 85 million homes, a figure that puts it on par with Fox Sports 1 and just a couple of million behind ESPN and ESPN2.

The most recent Nielsen report has NBCSN in 82 million homes, which suggests that the DirecTV move added around 3 million more.

For NBC Broadcasting and Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus, NBCSN’s growth amid the cable industry’s decline affirms a strategy NBC set in motion five years ago.

At that point, NBCSN executives decided that the best way to grow was not to compete directly with ESPN as a general sports channel. Rather, NBC decided to focus its program schedule around the sports that it carried to attract their loyal, passionate fan bases. That meant heavy focus on the NHL and English Premier League and little, if any, talk on the NBA or MLB.

“We knew what rights we had, and we based a strategy around them,” Lazarus said. “We are not trying to be someone else. We never wake up any day wishing we were somebody else.”

NBC Sports Network viewership trends

Year Primetime avg. viewers Total day avg. viewers
2016 392,000 173,000
2015 367,000 153,000
2014 300,000 148,000
2013 280,000 96,000

Source: SportsBusiness Daily research


Viewers have followed suit, as 2016 was the network’s most-watched year in prime time (392,000 average viewers) and total day (173,000 average viewers) — breaking a record that was set just the year before (see chart).

The few times that NBCSN deviated from its focused strategy — remember Michelle Beadle’s “The Crossover” daily studio show that was canceled in 2013? — served as a wake-up call to NBC executives to have a hyper focus only on the sports they cover.

NBCSN’s strategy is different from Fox Sports 1, which launched in August 2013 and set itself up as a direct competitor to ESPN. FS1 has mimicked ESPN’s programming schedule with high-priced live events in prime time and general sports studio programming during the day.

FS1 also is in 85 million homes, down from a high of 90 million in October 2013, according to Nielsen.

Once Nielsen estimates start counting over-the-top subscribers such as Sling and Hulu, those number could start to increase, Lazarus said.

Pay TV operators pay $1.30 per subscriber per month for FS1, according to Kagan. NBCSN gets 30 cents. ESPN still commands the biggest fee: $7.89 per subscriber per month.

ESPN and Fox both pay significantly higher prices for their live rights — which include MLB and major college football and basketball — than NBC.

“We’ve remained profitable the whole way,” Lazarus said. “We aren’t going to be a generalist sport channel. We want to go deep into the sports that we have.”

In addition to the NHL and EPL, NBC has used exclusive Olympic programming, IndyCar races and Formula One events to persuade cable operators to put it on more attractive tiers. Even NBCSN’s NASCAR coverage is exclusive in the second half of the season.

NBCSN simulcasts Dan Patrick’s radio show every morning as a way to get “daily relevance,” Lazarus said.

“Our strategy has paid off,” Lazarus said. “Distributors see a value in having this channel on their systems.”

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.
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