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NBC's Premier League subscription soccer streaming service to get biggest test yet

NBC Sports is aware that it will annoy some of its most devoted viewers of English Premier League soccer this week. But the network is ready

The English Premier League soccer game between Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Manchester United and Watford will only be available for viewing in the United States through NBC Sports’ paid subscription streaming service.
The English Premier League soccer game between Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Manchester United and Watford will only be available for viewing in the United States through NBC Sports’ paid subscription streaming service.Read moreMartin Rickett/PA via AP

NBC Sports is aware that it will quite thoroughly annoy some of its most devoted viewers this week.

But the network is ready. Indeed, it has been ever since it added English Premier League soccer games to its paid subscription streaming platform, NBC Sports Gold, at the start of the season this past August.

A package of 130 games which were previously available online to cable or satellite subscribers without any additional fee suddenly were not.

On the flip side, fans without TV subscriptions now had a way to watch 130 games from one of the world's most famous soccer leagues for $49.99.

There are a lot of cord-cutters in the American soccer community. But when the new Premier League streaming deal was announced, an even louder chorus of fans came out of the woodwork. Those fans have continued to make their voices heard on social media throughout the season.

Each of the league's 20 teams have already appeared on NBC Sports Gold at least once, though the big teams have been on the streaming platform only sparingly. On most weekends, they've been in the Premier League's regularly-scheduled television broadcasts slots on NBC, NBCSN or CNBC.

This week, though, that's going to change.

The Premier League has a midweek round of games scheduled, with four contests on Tuesday and six on Wednesday. Just three of the games will be televised. On Tuesday, NBCSN and Universo will air Leicester City-Tottenham Hotspur (2:45 p.m.); and on Wednesday, NBCSN will air Manchester City-Southampton (3 p.m.) and Universo will air Everton-West Ham United (3 p.m.).

That means games involving Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool — four of the biggest soccer teams not just in England, but across the globe — will be on the paid subscription platform in a span of 48 hours.

"I'm sure Twitter will be very kind," NBC Sports Group executive vice president and general manager of digital media Rick Cordella told the Inquirer and Daily News in a recent interview.

Cordella acknowledged the popular sentiment that "people felt like we took something that was free and put it behind a paywall."

But in reality, those games weren't "free." They just seemed that way to fans who had already paid for a TV subscription.

There are fewer such fans than there used to be. Though distribution on cable and satellite systems is still healthy for the major sports channels — NBCSN is in 84.4 million homes, for example, according to Nielsen — the numbers are declining.

"We have conviction that this is the right business model around the Premier League, and the other sports we've added to NBC Sports Gold," Cordella said. "The media world is continuing to shift, and TV ratings aren't what they used to be, and certainly subscriber levels haven't been as high as they've been in the past. So [we're] trying to figure out, how do we remunerate the rights we paid for? Direct-to-consumer [subscription video] with NBC Sports Gold is going to be an important part of that."

You might have noticed Cordella's use of the word "remunerate." It wasn't accidental. In 2015, NBC paid the Premier League approximately $1 billion for a six-year rights deal, after an initial three-year deal worth around $250 million. The network then saw Premier League TV ratings drop by an average of nearly 100,000 viewers per game from the 2015-16 season to 2016-17.

Cordella said NBC "made no money to very little money" from streaming non-televised games on the free-with-authentication platform. So they tried something different. And they boosted the offering with nearly 1,000 hours of shoulder programming produced by the Premier League's vast in-house production arm, as well as a Premier-League produced live studio show that airs in various forms across almost all 24 hours of the day.

"We're trying to capture the 10 to 15 percent of hardcore fans of their Premier League team on the NBC Sports Gold platform," Cordella said. "But the vast majority of games are still available via linear [TV] service, and we have not taken any linear windows away."

Asked whether the streaming service's staff has any influence over which games land on TV and which don't, Cordella said: "We're part of the discussion."

They are smart enough to not take games of great consequence off television. But given the parameters Cordella laid out earlier, the business sense in driving attention to the streaming platform is clear.

"We do work hand-in-hand with the programming team about what the schedule looks like," he said. "Look, I think our north star in this is to make sure the top games that draw the largest TV audiences still belong on your TV. I don't think anyone can say that a game that formerly would have been on TV now is moved to Gold."

Criticism of the platform was amplified when a glitch during Saturday morning Premier League games in late September caused the streaming platform's back end to crash. NBC apologized at the time, and offered rebates to some fans. Cordella said there haven't been problems since then.

"We feel pretty good where we are technologically," he added. "From that perspective, we feel good heading into the midweek games."

The Premier League isn't the only sports property on the NBC Sports Gold platform. There are also sport-by-sport subscription packages for track and field, cycling — including commercial-free coverage of the Tour de France with enhanced analytics — English rugby and motocross racing.

This fall, NBC Sports Gold quietly added an international subscription platform for Notre Dame football games. And more loudly, the NBC Sports Northwest regional channel launched subscription streaming for a package of Portland Trail Blazers games. It's only available to fans in the Portland region, but it still allows for watching live games without a TV subscription.

Cordella said thus far, NBC Sports Gold's subscriber base is "well into the six figures" as a combined total for all of its offerings. He did not break out how many subscribers there are for each sport package, but did say that the Premier League "makes up a pretty good portion" of sales.

"We're happy — we think we've surpassed all of our estimates for the year," he said. "We're excited that people are willing to pay for content now. I think that was a question mark in a past economy when the Internet was a bit of a different place."

It's worth noting that NBC isn't the only sports broadcaster that has put soccer games behind a subscription streaming paywall.

Fox has run a soccer-specific streaming platform for years. It features every game from the UEFA Champions League and Europa League, CONCACAF national team tournaments, Germany's Bundesliga and other soccer properties. It differs from NBC's offering in one notable way: Fox has never offered non-televised games via "free" authenticated streaming.

Next year, more TV networks will launch subscription streaming services independent of their TV offerings.

ESPN will debut a streaming platform early in 2018 that will include out-of-market streaming of some Major League Baseball, National Hockey League and Major League Soccer games, plus non-televised college sports events and global tennis tournaments. It will not include sports broadcasts on the network's linear TV channels.

Later in the year, Turner Sports will launch a subscription package for the Champions League and Europa League when it takes over English-language UEFA rights from Fox. Turner's deal is expected to dramatically reduce the number of televised games available. Whereas Fox televises three and sometimes four games on any given day, Turner reportedly plans to put 80 percent of games exclusively on its streaming platform.

"You see these various announcements by our peers in the industry with direct-to-consumer [streaming platforms], and we realize that yeah, this is probably not a place where you're going to see us say, 'Hey, we're going to stand still, and sort of hunker down and try and make the existing model work forever.' We're going to experiment and see what's next."

So what's next for NBC Sports Gold?

"I think we're still in overall experimental mode of what works, what makes sense in this," Cordella said. "What tends to work well are places where we own all rights. So there is a sprinkling of content on TV, on NBCSN. But for the hardcore fan, for the high end of the demand curve, NBC Sports Gold can fill in some of those gaps."

The Tour de France cycling race is one of the best examples of that. While NBCSN airs a few hours of TV coverage each day, NBC Sports Gold offers commercial-free live streaming of every stage from start to finish, plus real-time maps and statistics.

It's impossible to look at what NBC is doing without wondering about NBC's biggest sports property of all: the Olympics.

Since the 2012 Games in London, NBC has streamed every sports event online live, and made replays available afterward. At the 2016 Summer Olympics, the network debuted live streaming of the flagship shows on NBC's over-the-air broadcast network. The first Winter Games to get that treatment will be the 2018 edition, which will be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea in February.

With the 2018 and 2022 Winter games and the 2020 Summer games all set to be in Asia, demand for streaming — especially streaming of replays — is likely to continue to rise.

But Cordella expects Olympics content to remain within the TV authentication wall for a while.

"I would say the Olympics are probably not on NBC Sports Gold in the near term," he said.

Beyond that, the landscape is wide open.

"All things are on the table with all sports rights and content," Cordella said. "The media landscape is shifting more in the last six months than it probably has in the previous 10 years. I think everyone's starting to feel it."

Staff writer Rob Tornoe contributed to this report.