Fans of big NBC sports franchises like the NHL and Premier League will have to follow them to a new home.
NBCUniversal will shutter its NBCSN sports network, and move some of its top sports properties to the USA network in a maneuver executives believe will boost the economics of the general-entertainment cable outlet at a time when new streaming-video hubs are luring bigger audiences. The decision could also push some sports fans to the streaming-video hub Peacock, which has begun to test new kinds of sports-programming opportunities.
NBCUniversal has told its distributors it intends to shut down NBCSN at the end of 2021, according to a person familiar with the matter.
NBCU’s top sports properties include Nascar racing, National Hockey League contests and English Premier League football. USA is not going to become an all-sports network, this person cautioned, but might function more like WarnerMedia’s TNT, which has built a durable franchise out of its rights to air National Basketball Association games, does for that media company. It remained unclear whether the move would affect NBC Sports employees; the division recently experienced staffing cuts as part of a restructuring at NBCUniversal as it grapples with the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
“USA has been a top five cable entertainment brand for over twenty years by way of constantly broadening our slate and finding ways to excite our viewers through immersive storytelling and iconic personalities,” said Frances Berwick, chairman, of NBCU’s entertainment networks, in a statement provided after the move became known. “We remain committed to original entertainment programming, and believe that high-profile live sports will complement USA’s broad premium scripted, unscripted and WWE slate, enabling us to engage our passionate, intersecting audiences more deeply and with greater urgency.”
USA has always had a sports lineage. In its early days, when it was launched by entrepreneur Kay Koplovitz and subsequently owned jointly by MCA and Viacom, the network had rights deals at various times with Major League Baseball, the NHL, and the NBA, and its evening schedule was often dominated by sports programs. USA carried boxing matches on Tuesday nights for more than a decade. But in 2004, most of its sports operations were merged into NBC Sports, when NBC purchased Vivendi Universal.
In a new era, sports may be more essential to maintaining the health of a traditional general-entertainment outlet like USA. Cable networks have suffered as audiences move to streaming-video hubs for the sorts of high-caliber scripted series that had long been a staple of cable. Even as they place more emphasis on their own streaming hubs, big media outlets like NBCUniversal, Disney and others need to maintain the large, live audiences that advertisers and cable and satellite distributors crave. Sports and news programming continues to draw those crowds.
In recent weeks, both ViacomCBS and Walt Disney tested running sports programs on cable networks typically skewed toward audiences who watch different sorts of entertainment. ViacomCBS aired an NFL Wild Card game on kids-focused outlet Nickelodeon and Disney put a different match-up on its Freeform cable outlet, which is aimed at younger consumers. Both broadcasts were tailored to core viewers, with special graphics and non-traditional guests.
As more consumers let go of traditional cable subscriptions — and as younger ones rely more heavily on broadband-delivered entertainment — NBCU has winnowed its cable portfolio. The company has shuttered outlets like Esquire, Style and G4. In May, NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell unveiled a sweeping reorganization that put its broadcast, cable and streaming operations under the purview of lieutenant Mark Lazarus, and streamlined oversight of its cable and broadcast businesses, all under the aegis of Berwick.
NBCSN has been the company’s answer to bigger sports operations, like Disney’s ESPN and Fox Corporation’s Fox Sports. Those companies manage a wider portfolio of sports rights. NBC’s strategy has focused on deep alliances with a narrower assortment of leagues: Nasar, Premier League, NHL, Tour de France and Formula One, and building programming to run alongside auto races, soccer matches and hockey games. “We are not trying to be all things to all people. We think we have built-in audiences and built-in demand for these sports, and we are going to super serve them with content around those products,” Lazarus told Variety in 2017. “We don’t wake up any single day and say we wish we were one of our competitors. They have their niche. They have their place. With our product, which is largely exclusive to our air, we have real value to cable operators, broadcasters, advertisers, and fans.”
NBCSN was originally known as the Outdoor Life Network, and part of a small handful of cable networks run by Comcast, NBCU’s corporate parent, before it bought control of the company from General Electric. It thrived on its association with biking, when racer Lance Armstrong was enjoying a wave of popularity. In 2006, Comcast renamed the outlet Versus, and tried to take on ESPN by dabbling in coverage of lacrosse and combat sports.
The decision to shut the network down could, over time, have an effect on NBCU’s portfolio of rights. The NHL’s current deal with NBCUniversal is slated to end after the 2021 season. ESPN has tried to make inroads with the league by broadcasting some games on ESPN Plus, its streaming-video outlet.