NBC's $250 Million Bet on English Soccer Is Still a Scoreless Draw

Photograph by Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images

The Oxygen Network, best known for such shows as Bad Girls Club and Chasing Maria Menounos, will soon be streaming a live soccer match from the Barclays Premier League in England. Think of it as Chasing Luis Suarez.

A single soccer game is already a rarity on American television; a simultaneous broadcast of matches on Oxygen, Syfy, Bravo, E!, and other NBCUniversal channels not associated with sports will certainly be unprecedented. NBCUniversal is clearing its cable slate for the end of the English soccer season as way to trumpet the massive, relatively risky bet it made on the league this year. “People are going to think something crazy’s going on,” says Jon Miller, president of programming at NBC and NBC Sports.

It’s not that Real Housewives fans are going to be hooked by Hull City vs. Everton, but NBC needs to send a message to everyone who might be channel surfing on Sunday morning: We’re serious about this soccer thing, and if you aren’t paying attention yet, you should. 

At this point, NBC doesn’t have a choice. Back in 2012, the Comcast unit agreed to pay $250 million for broadcast rights to all English Premier League games for three years. So was its debut season worth $83 million? NBC says so, although its soccer ratings were puny in comparison to offerings such as Blacklist and The Voice. “We’ve got a way to go to be on top of the table, but we’re not in danger of being relegated,” Miller says of the season. “We’ve learned a lot and I think we’ve done right by the sport, the league and the fans.”

Going into the final round of games, NBC had won an average of about 440,000 viewers for each match, nearly double the audience drummed up by ESPN and Fox Soccer in prior broadcasts. During the season thus far, NBC managed to triple the overall English Premier League audience in the U.S., bringing in a total of 30.5 million viewers.

Both metrics look relatively weak when compared with the average NFL game, which pulled in somewhere around 17 million viewers over the regular season last year. NBC’s most popular Premier League match, a Feb. 8 scrum between Cardiff and Swansea, snagged 1.2 million viewers.

TV executives regularly pull the plug on offerings that draw far more eyeballs. NBC itself recently canceled The Michael J. Fox Show after 15 episodes, and that show brought an average of 5.2 million viewers for each episode.

But television, like sports, is not quite entirely about numbers. Miller said the games won a crop of advertisers that value the relatively young and very focused viewers that British soccer tends to attract. Apple, Subway, and Liberty Mutual are a few companies that increased their investment in the programming as the season went on, according to NBC.

The Premier League coverage no doubt would have done better if Manchester United, arguably the world’s most popular club, weren’t having one of its worst seasons on record. Red Devil fans in Detroit and Dallas probably started tuning out in January when the club lost to Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea. “I don’t think it necessarily hurt,” Miller says of Manchester United’s collapse. “If they’re doing better, it obviously helps.”

For NBC, the games don’t have to outperform ratings dynasties such as The Big Bang Theory or Dancing With the Stars. Airing primarily on weekend mornings, they face a much lower bar: news programs and Law & Order reruns. Miller says this slice of the week used to be “a wasteland” for sports television. A few fans in a wasteland looks a lot better than a handful of people in Cowboys stadium.

For now, NBC can borrow a mantra from Manchester United: We’ll do better next year. Plus, the network has bigger sports bet to worry about—making a profit through 2032 on its $7.65 billion Olympics bid.

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