Soccer fans have been drafted into the U.S. streaming wars.
NBC, in the first year of its six-year, $2.7 billion exclusive U.S. broadcast and streaming rights deal signed last fall with England’s Premier League — the most viewed soccer league on Earth, and topping Major League Soccer in the U.S. — kicked off the 2022-23 season with 10 matches this past weekend.
Of the 10 matches, two were on cable’s NBC-owned USA Network while the rest streamed behind NBC’s Peacock Premium streaming service that runs $5 or $10 a month depending on the ad tier chosen.
How did they fare with American viewers?
It’s a bit hard to judge because NBC, like other networks and their own paid streaming services, doesn’t disclose Peacock-specific audience figures.
Here’s what we do know: Chelsea-Everton at 12:30 p.m. Saturday averaged 678,000 combined linear TV and streaming viewers on USA Network while Friday’s mid-afternoon Crystal Palace-Arsenal match averaged 526,000 on the same channel.
With linear mixed with the streaming numbers — what NBC called Total Audience Delivery, or TAD — the two USA Network matches averaged a combined 603,000 viewers. That’s down only very slightly from 2021’s opening weekend that averaged 604,000 over six match windows, per NBC.
Friday’s Crystal Palace-Arsenal audience is the second-most-watched Premier League initial match of the opening weekend on record after Manchester United-Tottenham averaged 651,000 in 2015 on since-shuttered NBCSN, per the network.
The viewership was solid if unremarkable, one TV sports audience insider said.
“Those were fine. Ultimately, there are not going to be any eye-openly big Premier League numbers,” said Jon Lewis, who analyzes audience data at Sports Media Watch, which he founded in 2006. “It’s been remarkably stable since NBC started airing it.
“The bar is really low, so that no individual number jumps out as anything at all,” Lewis continued. “Except the NFL, no one is out there attracting really big numbers. Everything else is in the mushy middle.”
There are some caveats, because comparing anything on TV these days is a frustrating apples-oranges or some other round fruit comparison: This year’s Premier League season began a week earlier than normal because of the World Cup break in November and December, which put this past weekend into conflict with the women’s British Open that NBC carriers on its platforms. NBC’s coverage of the golf tournament in Scotland averaged 1.08 million on Sunday and 729,000 viewers on Saturday. USA Network got 200,000 for its early Sunday coverage and 249,000 on Saturday.
Last year’s Saturday-Monday opening Premier League weekend included one match on NBC, five on USA Network and four exclusively on Peacock. Combined, they averaged 628,000 viewers, giving Comcast’s channels their most-watched Premier League opening weekend since 2015. That weekend was topped by 912,000 viewers on NBC for Liverpool-Norwich.
Audience for any live sporting event is driven by many factors, including start times, stars and teams involved, storylines, competition on other channels, broadcast vs. cable vs. streaming, etc.
NBC didn’t own the soccer-viewing weekend: ABC averaged 555,000 on Saturday afternoon for Major League Soccer’s Atlanta-Seattle broadcast, and 513,000 for Borussia Dortmund-Bayer 04 Leverkusen of Germany’s top-flight Bundesliga at noon that day, per Nielsen data via ShowBuzz Daily.
NBC’s Premier League deal covers all 380 matches each season and includes exclusive Spanish language rights for Universo/Telemundo. The new contract runs through 2028, and the network reportedly beat out ESPN and CBS for the rights. NBC has broadcast the Premier League since taking over the rights from Fox and ESPN in 2013, and its 2015 rights extension was for a reported $1.1 billion.
The first 2022-23 Premier League match on NBC itself will be Brentford-Manchester United at 12:30 p.m. Aug. 13. Events that air on the major networks typically garner a larger audience than cable-only or streaming.
For all of the 2021-22 season, NBC’s platforms averaged 507,000 viewers per Premier League match window. That was up 21 percent over the season prior and doesn’t include Peacock-only and Spanish language telecasts. A network-record dozen PL matches topped 1 million viewers in 2021-22.
NBC isn’t going to get such viewership on Peacock in the near term, but the streaming wars are long-term plays. As American households continue to drop cable/satellite bundles in favor of streaming or nothing at all, networks have sought live sports media rights to both populate their new streaming services and to slow the secular decline of linear TV viewership — old-fashioned TV still generates the most revenue thanks to higher ad rates than streaming, and live sports are more resistant to eyeball declines.
Live major sports also typically win the young and affluent advertising demos that brands crave and will shell out serious money to reach even as the overall numbers as a whole shrink.
How long that reality lasts is uncertain because the streaming wars are still in their infancy as U.S. consumers and age cohorts maintain their content consumption habits.
But trying to gauge the status of live sports like the Premier League amid the chaos of the rapidly changing U.S. television landscape is difficult without knowing the eyeball counts — and the networks don’t seem keen to disclose much granular information. Nielsen isn’t tracking propriety streamers like Peacock.
We do know Peacock ended the first quarter of 2022 with 13 million paid subscribers and 27 million active users. Paid sub growth remained flat in the second quarter, still at 13 million, per Comcast’s quarterly earnings data. The number of active accounts, which includes free, actually fell by 1 million in the second quarter, down from 28 million reported in April.
Comcast had reported 9 million paid Peacock users at the end of 2021. Fueling subsequent paid growth were events such as Super Bowl LVI and the Beijing Winter Olympics, both in February.
And also like the other major streaming services, Peacock still loses hundreds of millions of dollars as a start-up that’s paying for its own launch costs along with broadcast rights and content licensing and in-house content development.
Peacock’s launch coincided last year with NBC’s decision to shutter NBCSN by the end of December. It has been another platform for Premier League matches, and USA Network picked up those NBCSN matches.
The long-term strategy by NBC and the other networks is to put enough popular content behind the streaming paywall to build the subscription base and eventually reach profitability — which is why major properties such as “Sunday Night Football” and the WWE Network are on Peacock.
The Premier League is another draw for the service, but it’s unclear how much of a subscription needle-mover it is. NBC has put its matches behind paywalls in the past, so regular U.S. fans may already have signed up for the premium tiers as they seek out the matches they want.
“I feel like a lot of the hardcore fanbase would have signed up for Peacock by now,” Lewis said. “They’re going to run out of folks who don’t already have it.”
The network said this year’s ratio of Peacock/linear/cable matches will be about the same as last season. Any matches not on NBC or cable will stream exclusively on Peacock Premium (and the platform carries simulcasts of matches on NBC’s linear and cable channels, along with studio shows and full replays). That means most matches are behind the paywall.
Of course, Peacock is also populated with lots of non-sports content such as reruns of “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation” along with movie and TV content from Universal Pictures, Focus Features, DreamWorks Animation, and Illumination, plus original programming.
PAY DAY: The new Big Ten media rights deal should land soon and is expected to deliver the conference at least $1 billion (and probably more) per season starting in 2023. The Athletic’s Nicole Auerbach has an excellent what-we-know breakdown of the rights talks and what they mean for viewers. It looks like NBC and CBS, along with Amazon or Apple, could join Fox as the home for Big Ten football and basketball. ESPN is reportedly out of the running. Fox remains the conference’s primary partner and will continue to air games at noon on Saturday, along with games on FS1 and the Big Ten Network (of which Fox maintains a 60-percent ownership stake). If Disney-owned ESPN and ABC are out of the literal picture, it would signal the end of a long relationship. ABC has aired Big Ten games since 1966 while ESPN has since 1982.
HARD KNOCKS: The popular HBO show that takes fans inside team training camps debuts at 10 p.m. Tuesday with the first of five episodes about the Detroit Lions. The show will premiere its second in-season edition in November with the Arizona Cardinals. “Hard Knocks In Season” launched last year with the Indianapolis Colts. The preseason series debuted in 2001. This is the first time for the Lions and Cardinals to appear on HBO’s NFL franchise series. “Hard Knocks” became an annual show starting in 2007.
BASEBALL: It’s “Field of Dreams” week. MLB returns to Dyersville, Iowa, for a Chicago Cubs-Cincinnati Reds game in throwback uniforms at the site of the hit 1989 baseball movie. The game airs live at 7 p.m. Thursday on Fox. The pregame show will include a tribute, narrated by “Field of Dreams” star Kevin Costner, for actor Ray Liotta, who died at age 67 on May 26. Liotta played the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson in the film. Last year’s “Field of Dreams” game had originally been scheduled for 2020 but delayed a year because of the pandemic. The White Sox beat the Yankees, 9-8, in front of 7,832 fans amid the corn, and 5.9 million watching on Fox — the best regular-season audience for the network since 2005.