NBC has made a huge, $83 million bid for EPL broadcast rights in the United States for the next three years. What does this mean for EPL soccer in the United States, and what does it mean for ESPN, Fox Sports, and NBC?
What began as a long shot wish and dream almost a year ago is now looking more and more likely to be a soon to come reality. Sources are reporting today to Sports Business Daily and Sports Illustrated that NBC has made a ludicrous bid for the United States rights to broadcast English Premier League matches for the 2013-2016 broadcasting cycle. NBC nearly quadrupled the bid that Fox Sports made back in 2009; 23 million dollars a year, with an 83 million dollar bid per year. Sources say that ESPN and Fox Sports were informed they were out of the running today and that outside of some unforeseen bid from BeIN or Al Jazeera, English Premier League soccer will be broadcast on NBC and NBC Sports starting next year.
There's a lot of potential implications and reasons for this move. First to note is that this is a symptom of the increasing arms race in foreign broadcasting rights for the English Premier League. Foreign rights totaled 1.4 billion dollars of revenue for the Premier League over the past three seasons, and that number will likely increase once all ducks are counted and known. What is shocking, at least according to the sources cited above, is the sheer amount of money that the bid jumped to. A more than three-fold increase to the value of the EPL contract in America is significant and will certainly provide for interesting negotiations the next time these rights come up for bidding.
Now the implications and reasons. First off, this is a loss for ESPN. What was once the bastion for soccer in the United States, the Worldwide Leader has lost the Champions League, World Cup, and now English Premier League rights. The Champions League contract was lost in 2009, and only recently did the company lose the World Cup rights to Fox. This means that after World Cup 2014 and Euro 2016, ESPN has no current soccer contracts in its broadcasting arsenal. This of course begs a lot of questions, such as what the nature of soccer's prevalence on SportsCenter will be from now on (judging by what happened to the NHL, non-existent). ESPN sub-contracted games from Fox Sports. For all we know NBC will do the same, but given that NBC Sports Network is attempting to be a direct competitor, I don't think it's likely. The status of Ian Darke, Martin Tyler, and other personalities and commentators contracts are unknown to me, and personally losing Ian Darke to purgatory tied up in ESPN contracts with no games to call would sadden me. (Author Note: It's been brought to my attention that Ian Darke had a three year contract with ESPN. It runs through this season, so he is available for NBC to poach)
Fox Soccer will also be gutted, as it's entire purpose on the cable tier, for all intents and purposes, will be gone. It still has the Champions League, FA Cup, Europa League, and other contracts, but losing it's main league will be gutting. The only leagues it has contracts with currently, to my knowledge, are the Australian A-League and Scottish Premier League. Without regular top European league broadcasts, Fox Soccer's situation may become dire. The channel is already a premium cable channel, usually requiring a sports package (unlike NBC Sports, which has basic carriage in many markets now like ESPN). Fox will lose revenue one way or another, through less carriage fees (as less committed soccer fans cancel the sports tier) or through higher carriage fees and thus, higher cable bills.
Finally, we get to NBC Sports, the assumed winners at this point. In a way, as I said last year, the move makes sense. The network is trying to create a direct competitor to ESPN in the states, and unfortunately for them many major league broadcast rights are tied up for the long term. Thus, with the volatility of the NHL situation, NBC needs some top tier sports coverage to use as a cornerstone while it sits and waits. The EPL looks to be that cornerstone. It gives the fledgling sports network something to broadcast during the day and weekends that are not hunting and fishing shows, and solidifies NBC's place as the home of soccer in the United States along with the MLS contract. Coupled with the aggressive move NBC made two weeks ago for Formula 1 racing (also beating Fox Sports on that occasion) NBC is building a stable of sports programming and is not afraid to spend to get it.
What this means for soccer in the United States, I don't know. The fact that NBC Sports Network is on basic cable packages will likely lead to some increase of ratings, and the possibility of the English Premier League game being broadcast on network television (pure speculation on my part) this could be a coup for NBC Sports. If ratings reach the demand NBC hopes they do, recouping the large bid NBC made for the rights, this could be seen as an incredibly savvy move. There is also room for this to backfire and for NBC Sports to take a loss on this whole venture, but judging by their willful aggressiveness it doesn't appear that they worry too much if that happens and the shot across the bow of Fox Sports and ESPN is good enough for them.
All in all, I'm happy with the move. This means no more Steve McManaman (I assume) and barring a sub-contract situation with Fox Sports it means no more Wynalda, no more Rob Stone, and no more complaining and whining about Brad Friedel or Clint Dempsey or whoever. From the MLS games I've watched on the network, NBC has some very astute and good personalities working on its soccer coverage, and overall delivers a better product in the off the field aspects than ESPN or Fox Sports. Official confirmations of the broadcasters for the next three years comes next week, but it appears that there is a 95% chance NBC will be announced as the broadcasters. For that, I am happy and excited. Here's to, hopefully, the future broadcast of a Tottenham Hotspur game on network television in the United States.