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Volume 21 No. 2

Media

NBC’s coverage of the Premier League this season began on as much of a high note for network officials last August as they could have imagined. The network scored the most-viewed opening weekend for the league ever in the United States and, more significantly, secured an unprecedented six-year renewal of its league rights just as the final year of its existing contract was starting.

NBC’s storytelling strategy paid off with Leicester City’s success.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
It proved to be the start of a season of positive storylines for NBC.

The network saw a 26 percent increase in total viewership for Premier League match broadcasts for the 2015-16 season compared with 2014-15, reaching more than 36 million viewers. That increase was due in part to a shift in match programming. NBC Sports carried all 380 Premier League matches via its family of TV channels and live-streams again this year, with 228 of those airing on a cable or broadcast network. That’s up from 195 the previous year.

Average viewership for NBC’s match windows increased 7 percent, to 514,000 viewers compared with 479,000 in 2014-15. NBC also saw a 26 percent increase this season in unique viewership through its NBC Sports Live Extra offering, up to 2.6 million viewers.

“To see that kind of growth in audience across all windows, we felt it was a really strong season after a really good start,” said Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network. “Sixty-five percent of all Premier League games are broadcast [nationally] on a linear level, which is more than any other sport on national TV, which makes it even more impressive.”

Miller cited a number of factors for the strong numbers, ranging from the network’s decision to add a 10 a.m. ET window on USA Network to the continued popularity of the weekly “Men in Blazers” program on NBC Sports Network.

Over the past year, the network aired features on Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney and its former manager Sir Alex Ferguson, as well as a four-part series on Crystal Palace and a feature on AFC Bournemouth. Further, speaking to the network’s range of coverage, of the Premier League’s 20 clubs, only three had fewer than 15 matches broadcast across NBC’s networks during the past season.

“It’s about building the value of the league and the teams, and it’s not just about covering the big teams, and that’s something we know is very important to the league and the shareholders,” Miller said.

That strategy paid particular dividends this year, given upstart Leicester City’s run to the championship. “It’s hard to put Leicester’s incredible run into perspective, but it certainly helps that we have showcased all 20 teams in the U.S.,” Miller said.

Miller said it was too early to discuss the network’s specific plans for next year, but he said that given the network’s new extension and the success of its shoulder programming seen to date, coverage should be expected to increase.

“After the clubs have seen how we treat them, and coaches, management and players see it too, they’re more willing to give us better access, which leads to more awareness, which leads to more fans, which leads to more ticket and merchandise sales, and so on,” he said. “It’s essentially a circle that helps us all.”

One possible new aspect for NBC’s coverage that might come next season is the introduction of more of the history of the league and its teams. Miller said that while some of the features that have aired previously have delved into history, many viewers of the broadcasts may only have knowledge of the league dating to 2012 or 2013, when they started watching the broadcasts in the United States.

“It’s something we try to do with the NHL broadcasts where we think it’s important to celebrate that history and those moments, and that’s something we’re going to try to do with the Premier League now, too,” Miller said.

That may lead the network to showcase more of its part-time voices, like former Premier League players Gary Lineker and Tim Howard (also a U.S. national team star), but Miller said there are no plans to bring on any new staff for its rotation of permanent broadcast talent. He also said that while incoming NBC broadcaster Mike Tirico is a big soccer fan, there have not been any discussions to involve him in the network’s coverage.

Miller sees an additional opportunity with the start of the 2016-17 Premier League season, as well. The first two weeks of the season will occur during the last two weeks of the Olympics and NBC’s coverage of the Games.

“Launching a season during an Olympics is unprecedented,” he said, “and might be the biggest thing we have going for us.”

It’s hard to think of TBS as a secondary player to Twitch, but when it comes to the ELeague that launches this week, that’s exactly how Turner is viewing its biggest TV channel.

Turner Sports has a ton of digital experience from running NBA.com, PGA.com, NCAA.com and Bleacher Report. But this week will mark the first time that Turner will use one of its TV channels to supplement digital. It’s way too early to call this a trend, but it’s one of the most intriguing aspects of ELeague’s launch.

“Five years ago, we were sitting on these linear pillars and were trying to find the digital extension or companion app,” said Craig Barry, Turner Sports’ executive vice president of production and chief content officer. “Really, the 30 hours of broadcast that we’re streaming on Twitch is just supplemented by the three-hour show on TBS. TBS really becomes the linear companion pillar for the much larger digital offering. This is 180 degrees from what we’re used to in the traditional sports space.”

Where TBS will show its influence is in how the events are produced on both digital and television. Turner producers plan to tell stories about the game’s participants as a way to attract viewers who know nothing about esports.

“We want to tell narratives that create an emotional attachment for the fan — whether they’re hard core or casual, you can’t argue against great narrative and storytelling,” Barry said. “This is something that is inherently missing in esports right now. It’s something that we can pull from our traditional platforms to get to a place where we can have a higher degree of storytelling and, ultimately, fan connections.”

As an example, Barry pointed to an Australian ELeague team that moved to the U.S. and has experienced enough ups and downs that Barry believes viewers will connect emotionally with them.

“We followed them from Australia,” Barry said. “The story is that they came here and it wasn’t fame and fortune. They struggled. It was almost like a bad rock band. … Since then, they’ve started to find their way and move back into a place where they may be able to get competitive again, which would be a great happy ending to a story.”

Barry also referenced ELeague’s LeBron James — an esports player named Olof Kajbjer. Known as “Olofmeister,” the player refuses to shake anybody’s hand for fear of damaging his wrist.

“These are little nuances that people can connect to,” Barry said. “Whether he’s the best or not — suddenly the story about the fact that he doesn’t shake hands outweighs the fact that he may be the best ‘Counter-Strike’ player in the world.”

Production will come from a 250-seat arena Turner built in Atlanta. Barry promises that the games will have the look and feel of traditional sports telecasts, complete with pregame and postgame shows and halftimes.

“For the traditional sports fan, they’ll be able to see a lot of similarities in the way that we approach it,” Barry said. “If you gave it a full three hours on Friday night, you definitely would understand the game, you definitely would be engaged with the teams and players.”

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

Time Warner Cable’s problem in launching the Dodgers’ regional sports network is having an effect on the rest of the pay-TV business. So, too, was Comcast’s problem in launching an RSN in Houston.

It’s clear that distributors are more emboldened to drop some sports channels than they have been in the past. For decades, distributors feared that passionate sports fans would flee if they dropped a sports channel. Now, they have realized that subscribers are addicted to the triple play (TV, phone, internet) and not even a big brand like the Dodgers in Los Angeles is enough to get subscribers to churn.

Using set-top-box data, distributors can tell exactly how many of their subscribers are watching any channel, which has helped them become smarter about what channels they can drop.

Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts hinted at this at the cable industry’s annual convention last week.

“There’s a lot of rethinking going on,” he said. “With that data, you can really tell how passionate each market is. …
“Every event is different and every opportunity is particular to the specifics of the issue. There’s a healthy conversation and tension in the marketplace that may never go away. What we’re getting is more and more data to make more intelligent decisions on all sides — as a buyer and as a cable operator and as a middleman and as a team owner. In all aspects of sports, data is driving things.”

— John Ourand

Editor’s note: This story is revised from the print edition.

Disney is kicking the tires on taking an equity stake in MLB Advanced Media. Turner Broadcasting paid close to $200 million for a majority stake in streaming company iStreamPlanet.

Now, NBC Sports Group is moving further into the video streaming business, setting up a division called Playmaker Media to convince leagues and teams to use NBC to stream their events. NBC formally plans to announce the new venture this week.

“There’s a real business here, but it’s also strategic for us,” said Rick Cordella, NBC Sports senior vice president and general manager of digital media. “We want to keep our partners closer to us and work with them not only from a rights fee perspective but from a digital point of view, too.”

For media companies like ESPN, NBC and Turner, these moves to set up their own streaming companies are signs of how TV networks plan to approach the next round of sports rights negotiations, many of which will occur early next decade. The idea is that these networks would use their streaming services as an added deal point to convince sports leagues and conferences to cut deals with them.

“Five or 10 years ago, there wasn’t a big demand for this kind of service,” Cordella said. “I know [MLBAM] had been there. But it seems like today, everyone’s putting more content online. Everyone’s announcing an OTT initiative. We can be a partner in that.”

Stand-alone streaming tech units also have proved to be good business. MLBAM’s tech unit brought in $100 million in revenue last year, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal. TV network executives want to get into that business.

NBC executives expect Playmaker’s initial clients to be properties with whom NBC already has deals. Playmaker has signed the International Olympic Committee as its first outside client to provide live streaming for its Olympic Channel, which is launching later this year. NBC will court other rights holders from leagues it does not have deals with, as well as some international clients that share similar rights in different markets, like the Olympics or English Premier League.

“Look at who we are partnered with today — that would be a likelihood of who we would have a relationship with,” Cordella said. “Internationally, look at who has [similar] rights with us: EPL, Olympic rights. We think we can step in there internationally and help them very quickly.”

Two leagues that have signed rights deals with NBC — the NHL and PGA Tour — have streaming deals in place with MLBAM. Last year, the NHL secured up to a 10 percent stake in MLBAM’s BAM Tech.

NBC has used its own live streaming service for much of the past decade, streaming Olympic events starting in 2006 and NFL games starting in 2008. It will stream 10,000 events this year for NBC, NBCSN, Golf Channel, Telemundo, NBCUniverso and the regional sports networks.

It is not planning to hire new staff for the venture, using the same Stamford, Conn.-based employees who already have been working on NBC Sports’ streaming for the past decade.

NBC News will use Playmaker to live-stream its coverage of the 2016 presidential election.

At launch, Playmaker will partner with tech companies to power the service, including Adobe, Akamai, Microsoft, iStream-Planet and Comcast Wholesale.

Minute Media, parent company of popular London-based soccer website 90min, this week will debut a new U.S.-focused sports and culture online and mobile destination called 12Up.

The new outlet will target young, male millennials and will operate on a socially driven, user-created content platform, a strategy that recalls the model employed in the early days of Bleacher Report, before Turner Sports bought it in 2012. 12Up will seek to cover a variety of on-field, off-field and lifestyle sports stories.

Rich Routman, formerly a senior executive with XOS Digital, Silver Chalice and Perform, is leading the 12Up initiative. Minute Media recently hired Routman as its president.

Minute Media has released a 12Up mobile application. The 12Up name references the 12th Man as the voice of the fan.

“Millennials don’t want to hear from [Sports Illustrated and TheMMQB.com’s] Peter King. They want to hear from their own audience,” Routman said. “We have very big aspirations for this and believe we can be a truly differentiated offering in tone and voice. I’m not looking to get to 3 million, 5 million monthly uniques. I want to get to 20, 30, 40 million uniques.”

Such a total, if it were to happen, would typically rank among the top 10 U.S. digital sports outlets.

90min, formed five years ago in Israel, last week formally reorganized itself as the Minute Media holding company, with other content brands in development for India and Germany beyond the U.S.-focused 12Up. The company’s properties reach 45 million global unique visitors. Minute Media has garnered $45 million in funding, including a $15 million round last fall, and investors include Dawn Capital, an early backer of FanDuel.

“With the formation of Minute Media, we can focus our growth on new markets and into new sports where we can continue to bring in the best content, in the most scalable platform, to users around the world,” said Asaf Peled, Minute Media founder and chief executive.

Bleacher Report’s initial reliance on user-generated fan content created several breaches in which questionable material was published. Routman said 12Up intends to employ a layered editing structure in an effort to avoid similar issues.

Debut sponsors for 12Up have not yet been disclosed.