NBC Sports rebranded Versus as the NBC Sports Network last month. If you did not notice this, you weren’t alone. Sports Business Journal has the January ratings, and the purported ESPN competitor is not off to an auspicious start.
The network averaged just 62,000 viewers, eighth-place among the sports networks participating in Nielsen and a 20.5 percent decline from Versus’ ratings last January. The Costas Tonight debut drew 108,000 viewers, the same number that watched a World Series of Poker rerun during the NFC Championship Game, ESPN’s lowest rated program of the month. NBCSN is in 75 million homes. Whether those homes know where to find it is another matter.
Why is NBCSN in this rut?
Poor Rights Deals: Sports networks are driven by live sports. Though NBCSN should see a spike during the NHL playoffs and the Olympics, their year-round rights deals are few and mediocre at best. The VIPs are their “exclusive” upfront at the Super Bowl emphasized this.
To that end, NBC Sports held an exclusive invite-only “upfront” event for about 250 guests in Indianapolis on the Saturday before the Super Bowl to lay out the NBC Sports Group’s vision. The event attracted elite sports industry executives, including advertisers, media buyers and league commissioners like the NHL’s Gary Bettman and MLS’s Don Garber, as well as IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard.
The network has a collection of second and third-tier properties (the polite way of putting it). It should aim higher than the Colonial Athletic Association. Big East Football is a reasonable target, though an audacious bid for MLB or NASCAR might change their outlook dramatically.
Incoherent Programming: The network’s supplementary programming has resembled the Island of Misfit Toys. Praiseworthy efforts such as Costas, NFL Turning Point and documentaries have been paired with poor ESPN knockoffs, projects doomed at conception (Sports Jobs with Junior Seau, the T. Ocho Show) and ratings cataclysms (Sports Biz: Game On with Darren Rovell). Outdoor programming predating NBC’s involvement (North to Alaska, City Limits Fishing, Quest for the One) provides the network’s three highest-rated shows not directly affiliated with NHL games. That’s precisely with NBC wants to phase out.
NBCSN speaks of shows being “off-brand” but clearly needs to figure out what the “brand” is. Challenging ESPN will mean a focused approach, targeting a specific audience by doing something ESPN does better. Right now it looks like NBCSN is just compiling crap the hegemon sets aside. It did take ESPN a while to get off the ground, though ESPN was creating a marketplace. NBCSN must wrest space in a competitive one.