As the NBC Sports Group prepares for the 2017-18 Premier League season, a number of firsts are in play.
The U.K.'s top soccer circuit will kick off for the first time on a Friday, with the programmer providing an on-the-pitch coverage approach. It is serving up a new over-the-top, streaming subscription package comprising live-match action and various shoulder programming. The sports arm of NBCUniversal Media LLC is also looking to rebound from its first audience decline with the property during the 2016-17 season, the first under a six-year pact worth a reported $1 billion in rights fees.
The coverage will emanate on-site across three days from three different grounds: the Arsenal-Leicester City season-opener Aug. 11 from Emirates Stadium at 2:45 p.m. ET on NBCSN (US); Manchester City against Brighton & Hove Albion F.C. on Aug. 12 from the American Express Community Stadium at 12:30 p.m. on NBC (US); and Manchester United hosting West Ham from Old Trafford on Aug. 12 at 11 a.m. on NBCSN.
Pierre Moossa, the coordinating producer for NBC Sports' Premier League coverage, said in an interview that the idea of its on-site presence is to celebrate the start of the season and provide a big-event feel.
Since acquiring the rights, NBC Sports had provided additional match coverage that extended beyond NBCSN, NBC, CNBC (US) and Telemundo (US) with the Extra Time package, an ad hoc network of channels from distributors that were made available to authenticated video customers. That offering has been supplanted by the subscription service.
NBC Sports on Aug. 3 began offering "Premiere League Pass" for $49.99, which features 130 matches, including a minimum of three from each of the circuit's 20 clubs. The OTT service, like NBC Sports' linear network coverage, includes ads during the pre-match, halftime and post-game fare, including messaging from General Motors, Land Rover and Geico, which have been on board since the programmer's first season.
As part of more than 1,000 hours, subscribers will also gain access to on-demand viewing, a host of shoulder programming from Premier League Productions that have not been previously available in the U.S., NBC Sports original content and studio shows, plus highlight clips.
"It's an immersive experience for the hardcore soccer fan," said Jon Miller, president of programming at NBC Sports and NBCSN, noting the company has rolled out OTT packages in cycling, rugby, track and field, and motor cross. "This is a new way for us to bring content to viewers, while also continuing to position our business for the future."
Ratings-wise, NBC Sports suffered its first setback with the Premier League last season. NBC Sports almost doubled the 220,000 average audience FOX Sports/ESPN (US) netted in 2012-13 with 438,000 viewers in its initial campaign of 2013-14, before boosting the count to 479,000 and 514,000 watchers the following two seasons. Last year, though, the average declined almost 18% to 423,000.
Miller said a number of factors contributed to the downturn, including the sporting world’s focus on the 2016 Summer Olympics as last season began. Like other sports, including the NFL, Miller said viewer attention was diverted last fall by interest in the historic presidential election cycle.
The schedule didn't help matters, either. Miller pointed out that the two Manchester Derby matches — Manchester City vs. Manchester United — started at 7 a.m. ET on a weekend and the other during a weekday, when most U.S. futbol fans are at work. "Sky plc and BT Sport, which determine the schedule, changed priorities and their TV windows didn't match up with our most-watched windows [Saturday at 12:30 p.m. ET and Sunday at 11 a.m.]," he said.
On top of that, Chelsea won the crown handily, finishing seven and 15 points clear of Tottenham and Man City, respectively. "We haven't yet had a major title race that went down to Championship Sunday, so hopefully that happens this year," he said.
Those factors aside, Miller said that after Dec. 1, viewership was off only 5% versus the prior season. "We continue to strongly believe that the Premier League is the best soccer league and the world, and our audience will bear that out," he said.