Soccer rights have been changing hands at a furious pace in 2021.
La Liga, Serie A, Copa America, UEFA European Championship and World Cup Qualifiers, CONCACAF Gold Cup and Champions League, Campeonato Brasileiro Série A and Liga Profesional de Fútbol have all found new homes in the U.S. this year, with streaming services gaining the majority of rights.
The English Premier League (EPL) was the latest up for auction, with a competitive bidding process ending in NBCUniversal holding onto the coveted soccer rights until the culmination of the 2027-28 season.
The new EPL rights are anticipated to be the most expensive club competition soccer rights in the U.S. Early reports suggest the new six-year deal is worth a total of $2.7 billion — equating to $450 million a year, which is an increase of 169.5% on the prior package. It should be noted that NBCU opted not to bid on its prior NHL deal earlier in the year, worth $200 million a year, with this cash freed up for the retention of rights the media company deemed essential.
It’s important to note that NBCUniversal may not have been the highest bidder, especially with ESPN and ViacomCBS joining forces in the battle for rights. Key to the EPL’s U.S. growth strategy is for a majority of games to be available across broadcast and cable TV networks so as to reach the maximum number of viewers, and it’s likely the NBCU bid was the most attractive along these lines.
This strategy is designed to make the EPL the most popular league in the U.S. as well as keep the league and teams top of mind for lucrative end-of-season tours of the States. Based on the distribution of soccer games seeing an audience over 200,000 (the minimum that triggers reporting), the EPL is far and away the most popular domestic league in the U.S. among viewers of English broadcasts.
It was for this reason that NBCU fell foul — or offside — of the Premier League last season. The company opted to use the Premier League as a primary driver for subscriptions to Peacock soon after the service launched and cut the number of games airing on traditional TV. The EPL took a dim view of this, with the number of televised games in the 2021-22 season to date increasing over last year as NBCU tried to placate its partner.
Furthering the case of the EPL to remain on TV is the strong performance of games. Compared with the same period in 2016, the total audience watching games on NBC is down by -0.4%, with the average cable audience actually increasing by 5.4%. The 18-49 audience — those most likely to cut the cord — has seen declines of -17.9% for broadcast and -10.4% for cable, but these remain below the total losses of the pay TV industry, which fell by -25% between 2016 and 2021.
Having to prioritize TV coverage was a shift in strategy for many of the bidders. With NBCU winning, Peacock may have a few exclusive "low-priority" EPL games, but VIP+ expects that majority will be simulcast between TV and streaming (details were not released at time of this writing).
This is the opposite of the Serie A Paramount+ deal, which sees the best games on the SVOD platform and a single game a week broadcast on CBS Sports Network. Incidentally, for the season to date, not one Serie A game has seen a total audience of 200K or more on CBSSN.
The EPL is a rare media property in 2021 that is thinking of more than just a cash infusion. With its closest rivals all opting to lock up their content on ESPN+ or Paramount+, the path is open for Premier League to dominate the minds of soccer fans using the platform that still has the greatest overall reach in the U.S. — TV.