Sports Media Watch presents 20 notable sports media stories of the year 2012. Today, #10-#6, including a new acquisition for NBC Sports, one of the four major sports self-destructing, and realtime backlash to tape-delay shenanigans.
#10: NBC Steals Away Premier League Rights
NBC whiffed on Major League Baseball TV rights — inflicting major damage on NBC Sports Network in the process — but the Peacock did manage to wrest English Premier League rights from rivals FOX and ESPN. In a three-year, $83 million/year deal, NBC acquired rights to all Premier League matches, with more than a dozen potentially set aside for the NBC broadcast network.
While the Premier League is not a huge television draw in the U.S., it certainly carries greater prestige than NBC’s other soccer property, Major League Soccer. In addition, the EPL was an important property for FOX and ESPN, with the former even giving the sport exposure on NFL Sundays. Perhaps most important of all, the EPL gives NBCSN hours and hours of live sports programming – a boon that cannot be overstated for the struggling network.
#9: NFL Network Extends Thursday Night Slate
The NFL’s television deals in December 2011 gave the league the option to expand NFL Network’s Thursday night slate — a move that had been discussed dating back to the league’s negotiations with the players’ union during the 2011 lockout. The league finally announced the move in February, expanding the NFL Network schedule from eight to thirteen games starting with Week 2 of the season.
The new schedule was a relative success, as NFL Network had a modest increase in ratings and viewership during the 2012 regular season. Much of that increase may have had less to do with the increased slate, however, and more to do with increased distribution. NFL Network reached carriage deals with longtime holdouts Cablevision and Time Warner Cable, and by December was available in 68.8 million homes — up 19% from 57.6 million in December 2011 (SBD, 12/4).
There was some concern that the expanded Thursday slate had a negative impact on the other NFL telecast windows (WSJ, 12/13). Entering Week 15, viewership for non-Thursday games declined by 3% from 2011. However, the idea that five extra Thursday night games has caused viewer erosion for the other NFL windows — which earn substantially more viewers — is a stretch.
#8: Yet Another NHL Lockout
It is hard to consider the 2012 NHL owners’ lockout particularly notable. For one, it was the third lockout in just two years in major pro sports, and the fourth when the 2012 NFL referee lockout is included. This year’s lockout was also the NHL’s third straight and second in a decade. Every single time the NHL collective bargaining agreement has expired during Gary Bettman’s two-decade tenure, the owners have locked out the players and canceled games. The only thing notable about the 2012 NHL lockout may be that so few expected it to get ugly. The idea that the lockout would persist into the holiday season was unthinkable a year ago.
After utterly trouncing the players in negotiations eight years ago — losing the season but gaining a hard cap and a 24 percent rollback on existing salaries — NHL owners apparently wanted another big win. Over the course of negotiations, the players have already agreed to lower their percentage of revenue from 57% to 50% (as was the case in the NBA one year earlier), equaling a giveback of at least $1.5 billion over the course of an eight-year CBA (Detroit News, 12/10). Even so, a deal remained out of reach at the time of this post. The league has already lost the crown jewel of the regular season, the Winter Classic, and any semblance of an NHL season will not begin until at least January. For a league that is already hundreds of miles behind the NBA, Major League Baseball and the NFL in national popularity, perhaps this lockout will be the coup de grâce Bettman and the owners so richly deserve. Then again, judging by the relative ease with which the NBA and NFL came back from lockouts last year, the NHL will more than likely be back and stronger-than-ever a year from now.
#7: Backlash to NBC’s Tape Delayed Olympics
It is a biennial tradition to complain about tape delayed Olympic coverage on NBC, and 2012 was no exception. Unlike 2008, when some primetime coverage of the Beijing Olympics aired live on the East Coast, all primetime coverage on NBC was taped. While all events — including those scheduled for primetime — were streamed live online, that was not enough for viewers who wanted to see marquee events such as swimming and gymnastics on television, as opposed to a sometimes-unreliable online feed.
Also unlike 2008, the social networking website Twitter served as the primary forum for viewer complaints. As opposed to previous years, when viewer outrage would be voiced through local sportswriters, on isolated message boards, or in unread e-mails to the network, viewer outrage in 2012 was consolidated into one trendy ‘hashtag’ — #NBCfail. As with most Twitter movements, it became hard to see when the genuine outrage ended and the bandwagon began. Even so, buried alongside the bloviating were legitimate complaints about an outdated practice, one that laid bare the fact that viewers are only commodities to be sold in the TV business — not customers that need to be catered to.
To their credit, NBC Sports made a few moves to placate the viewers. For one, as mentioned before, every event was available live — and even a blurred and buffering online feed is better than nothing. In addition, the network aired Olympic coverage live in all time zones on the final two weekends of the event. Even so, the network’s reaction to the tape-delay backlash was poor at best. NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus sounded defensive, even whiny, in an interview with Sports Illustrated (SI.com, 8/11). At one point, NBC went as far as to publish a press release that attempted to marginalize the ‘NBCfail’ Twitter movement (NBC, 8/14), a frankly unnecessary bit of petulance that did not do much to legitimize the tape delay practice. Perhaps when the backlash resumes in just over a year, NBC will handle the situation better.
#6: The Launch of NBCSN
It is hard to believe, but Versus existed in 2012 — for one day. On January 2, the channel formerly known as OLN changed names once again, rebranding as NBC Sports Network. Year one of NBCSN was fraught with highs and lows, frankly more of the latter than the former. The first month of the rebrand, viewership on NBCSN dropped 21% from the previous year on Versus. Even ESPNEWS averaged more viewers (SBJ, 2/20). The series premiere of the “Costas Tonight” show — hosted by NBC’s heaviest of hitters, Bob Costas — sputtered with a 0.1 rating and under 150,000 viewers (SBD, 2/10).
The NHL and the Olympics provided a reprieve. Despite competition from games on CNBC, the Stanley Cup Playoffs averaged nearly one million viewers on NBCSN — the highest average for the playoffs on a single cable network in a decade. During the Olympics, NBCSN had eleven of the twelve most-viewed days in network history and set a network record with 4.4 million viewers for the USA/Japan women’s soccer final.
That brief success did not last very long. During the six weeks after the Olympics, Sports Business Journal reported, primetime viewership on NBCSN dropped 38% from the previous year on Versus, and total-day viewership declined by 26%. From August 20-26, NBCSN had its least-viewed week ever in primetime (SBJ, 10/1). To reiterate, NBCSN averaged fewer viewers that week than pre-NHL OLN ever did.
Not helping matters for NBCSN this year has been the absence of the NHL, which could come back weakened — if at all — in 2013. NBC’s inability to acquire rights to Major League Baseball also hurt the network severely. With potential competition from News Corp. on the horizon, the bad times may just be getting started for NBCSN.
The #5-#2 stories of 2012 will be posted on Thursday, December 27.