A brief history lesson on NBC Sports Net and soccer broadcast rights

Christopher Furlong

This weekend it was announced the NBC-Universal-(Comcast) has won the bid to broadcast the Barclay's Premier League for the next three years. The bid triples what Fox was paying for the rights

This weekend it was announced the NBC-Universal-(Comcast) has won the bid to broadcast the Barclay's Premier League for the next three years. The bid triples what Fox was paying for the rights, and makes NBC the exclusive home for all 380 Premier League matches next year. It's a move that will significantly change NBC, ABC/ESPN, and Fox, likely in the same way Fox changed NBC and CBS by bidding on the NFC package back in the early 90s. For MLS, 2006 was the big turning point.

2006 was the first year Major League soccer was able to command rights fees for its product. ESPN/ABC had been a broadcast partner since before the league played a match. Still, 2006 was when MLS made its biggest leap forward not only getting paid for its product but going on multiple national TV platforms.

Fox Soccer agreed to pay $5 million per year through 2010, a contract that was renewed once for one year. This carved out a game of the week, a few playoff contests, and US national team matches. This was the contract that NBC Universal bought last offseason.

ESPN also was part of that package, but their contract runs through 2014 worth $8 million annually. Fans may also remember matches showing up on HDnet (worth $2 million annually) and of course the still current contract with Univision.

So what are the origins of this network that took MLS from Fox Soccer last year, took Formula One from Speed (another Fox channel), and now have taken the Barclays Premier League from Fox Soccer? It begins back in 1996 as a cable company and a broadcaster start seeing value in regional sports networks. Their next target, the cable sports network ESPN.

The Outdoor Life Network was launched in 1995 by Outdoor Life magazine, with programming consisting of hunting, fishing, and outdoor adventure shows. In 1999, OLN acquired the US rights to the Tour de France for $3 million, at the same time that Lance Armstrong was coming to prominence.

In 2001 Comcast became a player in cable sports, buying Outdoor Life and the Golf Channel. Philadelphia based Comcast entered the Sports broadcasting game in 1996 launching Comcast Sportsnet to broadcast Flyers and 76ers* games.

*Hey! Hey look! That's just like what Time Warner just did in Los Angeles! See how history repeats itself! This stuff is important!

Back in 1996, regional sports networks were truly that, with different regions having different cable options for local sports. '96 was also the year Fox Sports Net launched. A year later, Fox would launch Fox Sports World that eventually became Fox Soccer.

So Comcast already had a sports background when they bought Outdoor Life and it's Tour de France broadcasts. In 2005, ESPN decided not to renew its NHL contract allowing the rights to fall to OLN. The following year, Comcast rebranded the channel as Versus.

So you're probably thinking, no way there's a corresponding move from Fox in 2005, the way there was in 1996. History can't be that coincidental. Yet it is! 2005 is the year Fox Sports World rebranded as Fox Soccer Channel, switching from a format that had multiple foreign sports to a soccer only format.

In 2011 Comcast and NBC become one, a classic case of an old titled family marrying new money. NBC gets to keep being a thing, and Comcast gets to throw the well known NBC label on everything. Wasn't long before the poorly named Versus became the marketable NBC Sports Network. As it has been since the beginning, Comcast took dead aim on their biggest competitor Fox.

Fox Soccer still has the rights to Champions League through 2015, and will broadcast the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Still, they will need a domestic league to stay in the game. In my initial reaction to the news, I wrote that Fox should go after Bundesliga rights from GolTV, and I still believe that.

It's worth noting that part of rebranding as Fox Soccer has seen the launch of FoxSoccer.com as one of the webs premier soccer news destinations. ESPN has ESPNFC, but that's just a new coat of paint on the old soccernet. It's likely that NBC Sports will seek the increase their web presence in the soccer world with these new rights.

The two things I hope come across first off everything goes back to the US getting the World Cup in 1994. MLS, ESPN's commitment to soccer both stem from that event. An event that coincided nicely with cable television coming into its heyday, mostly on the strength of local sports (and HBO).

The 2006 contract period coincided nicely with the emergence of HD programming. Once again, sports and movies were a reason to get an HD television, to sign up for HD programming. Soccer is important because sports programming is important.

For me, that's the biggest takeaway from this weekend's news.

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