Will NBC Bid Against ESPN And FOX For The 2013 Premier League Broadcast Rights?

Yes, the long national nightmare is over.

(Edited at 12:05pm EST for inaccuracies)

Beginning this spring, one of the largest broadcast negotiation's in the world will take place. It will involve broadcast networks across the globe, and will result in the exchange of tens of billions of dollars. The subject of these negotiations will be English Premier League broadcasting rights. These contracts are given out on a three year basis, and we're in the middle season of one of these cycles. The rights being negotiated in the spring will last from the 2013-14 season to the 2015-2016 season. The current broadcasters of English Premier League matches in the United States are Fox Soccer and ESPN. The entry of ESPN was thought to be a sign of more mainstream attention to top flight soccer in the United States, due to ESPN having among the highest carriage rates for a cable channel in the United States.

However, a challenger may have just appeared.

Debuting on January 2nd, NBC Sports will appear on televisions across the United States. Rebranded from the current Versus channel, it marks the opening shots of NBC Comcast's battle against ESPN for cable sports supremacy. With the NHL contract in hand, NBC has a decent platform to launch from but progress will be slow in becoming a true competitor against ESPN. It further solidified it's position several months ago when it purchased the MLS broadcast rights from FOX, now holding the rights to 2 of the 5 biggest sports leagues in this country, albeit the 2 smallest. However, a suddenly more lucrative and important contract may make itself available to NBC and provide a flagship for NBC while it waits for the NBA and MLB contract negotiations to begin later this decade. That contract would be the US Broadcast rights for English Premier League soccer.

Currently, ESPN holds rights for the 7:45 (or 10, if there is no 7:45)am game on Saturday, and select weekday fixtures. Fox holds the rights to 10am and noon kickoffs on Saturday, along with 11am on Sunday. Important to note is that both broadcasters are the same in the UK, with Fox and Sky Sports both being NewsCorp subsidiaries and ESPN with its own UK branch. The 3 year UK rights for 2010-2013 cost about 2 billion pounds, but the overseas contracts are much, much cheaper. The total of the worldwide contracts only came to 625 million pounds in sum (These were the numbers for the 2007-2010 cycle. The number is now 1.4 billion, h/t The Gaffer).

ESPN got the 2010-2013 rights for the EPL through the failure of Setanta Sports (not entirely though, matches are also sub-licensed through Sky Sports in a broadcasting partnership), which left both the UK and the US markets in 2009. ESPN picked up the dropped EPL coverage for a slight fraction of Setanta's contract. The result is that while ESPN is now a large broadcast partner of the EPL, it's never negotiated or necessarily shown large interest in the EPL property. This is meaningless in the UK, due to EU requirement of there being more than one broadcaster, ESPN stays in the game regardless. However, it could mean that ESPN's US headquarters may not value the US EPL contract, or at least not give it much value compared to other properties it could be showing on ESPN2 on Saturday mornings that are cheaper and have more to offer to its bigger College Football contracts.

Thus, this is where NBC comes in. Already with a major soccer contract and interested in marketing soccer in the United States, the EPL contract would be perfect. After Comcast acquired the channel, the sports department starting undergoing an overhaul, getting rid of Dick Ebersol and announcing rebranding intentions for Versus as well as discussing direct competition for ESPN. Due to the failing ratings of NBC's many non sports shows, ratings lucrative sports broadcasts are being targeted to help bring the channel back around. After Liverpool-Chelsea delivered nearly 2 million viewers when broadcast on terrestrial television with little marketing, NBC could see a market for this in the United States. May we all be blessed with EPL-MLS doubleheaders in our future.

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