Monday's 113-91 loss to the Cavaliers might not have been the high point of the Sixers' season, but it was a monster day for NBC Sports Philadelphia. The matchup between LeBron James and Joel Embiid became the most-streamed game ever for the regional sports network, logging in more than 1 million minutes streamed — 57 percent higher than the network's average.
Fans who want to stream Sixers, Flyers or Phillies games through the NBC Sports app need to have a cable login or subscribe to a skinny bundle like Hulu TV. And streaming packages such as NBA League Pass and NHL Center Ice aren't available to local fans here in Philadelphia because of league blackout rules.
Which makes an experiment going on in Portland very interesting to Philadelphia sports fans.
NBC Sports Northwest is promoting "Blazers Pass," the first direct-to-consumer streaming product offered by NBC Sports Regional Networks. It allows Trail Blazers fans within the team's blackout area to stream a bundle of 15 games on NBC Sports Gold, the network's paid subscription streaming platform, for $34.99 on platforms such as the Roku, Amazon Fire, Chromecast, Apple TV and mobile devices.
"We felt it was important to kind of crawl, walk and then run here," said David Preschlack, the head of the NBC Regional Sports Network. "It's the first foray into regionalized direct-to-consumer content, and we thought that 15 games was appropriate."
Preschlack said NBC Sports chose to experiment in the direct-to-consumer space with the Blazers mostly because the network renewed its broadcast rights with the team over the summer. Portland's young, tech-savvy market also played into the decision.
Whether a similar product is rolled out in Philadelphia or the seven other NBC Regional Sports Networks will depend on the results in Portland. Preschlack didn't reveal any specific numbers, but said "Blazers Pass" sign-ups were going "pretty well." He also said teams in Philadelphia and elsewhere have expressed interest in the outcome.
"Fifteen games in Philadelphia is not something we can do from a rights perspective right now," Preschlack said. But, he added, if the "Blazers Pass" exceeds expectations, it opens up the opportunity to go back to teams like the Sixers and potentially renegotiate TV deals to offer games to fans who don't have cable subscriptions.
"Sixers ratings are off the chart … and the streaming numbers are off the charts," Preschlack said.
Through 19 games, the Sixers are averaging a 2.83 household rating (81,209 homes) on NBC Sports Philadelphia, up 62 percent from this point last year and up 86 percent among viewers 25 to 54, according to Nielsen numbers. It's the best start the Sixers have had on the network in 10 years.
The network's streaming numbers are also up dramatically. Sixers games are up 381 percent in terms of minutes per game and 401 percent in unique viewers compared to the same time last year, according to numbers provided by NBC Sports Philadelphia.
It's not just the Sixers. Preschlack said NBC Sports Philadelphia's pregame and postgame shows for the Eagles outperform similar shows on other NBC Sports Regional Networks, including in Boston, where the Patriots are as popular as ever.
Still, Preschlack wasn't enthusiastic about the idea of pushing TV shows such as Philly Sports Talk to consumers who don't have cable subscriptions, but said there's been talk of creating new shows specifically for NBC Sports Gold subscribers.
"We have a lot of people spending a lot of time on this.… We just haven't cracked the code on that," Preschlack said. "We thought our best first step was to put some games out there, and then just figure out how we can experiment and come up with products that are relevant to fans."
The experiment comes as NBC Sports is moving forward with other live events on NBC Sports Gold. My colleague Jonathan Tannenwald wrote earlier this week about the network's somewhat controversial decision to add English Premier League soccer games to its paid subscription streaming platform.
Before the move, 130 games were available to stream to cable or satellite subscribers without additional fees (other than their monthly cable bill). But now, cord-cutters will have a way to watch the games for $49.99.
"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," said NBC Sports Group executive vice president and general manager of digital media Rick Cordella, who said NBC Sports Gold's subscriber base is "well into the six figures."
Other TV networks, such as ESPN and Turner Sports, are also launching subscription streaming services that offer games that differ from their broadcast offerings. And ESPN has begun to offer a version of SportsCenter on Snapchat, featuring former FS1 host Katie Nolan, ESPN NBA commentator Cassidy Hubbarth, ESPN Radio host Jason Fitz and comedian Cy Amundson, among others.
"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."