Friday, March 15, 2013

Sports Friday: 3/15/13

NBC Sports Network

I'm going to go all 'sports media nerd' on you for a bit to start here. At some point within the past few years, network executives decided that live sports programming was the thing, resulting in skyrocketing sports rights fees - all of course passed on to you, the consumer, whether you watch sports or not - and a steadily increasing number of sports networks. For instance, FOX recently announced that they would be converting SPEED over to an all-sports channel called "Fox Sports 1", the centerpieces of which will be college football, Major League Baseball, and NASCAR, I think.

Well, another one of those new (but not really new) sports networks is NBC Sports Network (formerly known as Versus, and before that, OLN). Turns out, they're having a bit of trouble getting their foot in the door. And I'm here to offer my support. Yeah!

The blog Awful Announcing did a good piece on why NBC Sports Network is struggling. Sure, they have the NHL and a few other things, but they've competed for and lost pretty much every major college sports rights battle over the past couple of years. I mean, they couldn't even score Big East rights. (No, not the "Catholic 7" half of the Big East. I'm talking about the remaining half of the Big East that USF is stuck in. In other words...ouch.) So, that's forced NBC Sports Network to find other opportunities for live sports, including the English Premier League (which they apparently grossly overpaid for), and starting this weekend, Formula One. They've also aired things like Major League Soccer, the Canadian Football League, non-major-conference college football and basketball, and a bunch of studio shows that nobody watches.

First off, let's ignore the fact that NBC Sports Network is owned by Comcast, and also forget about that whole DirecTV/Versus carriage battle from a few years back. I'm no fan of Comcast, but as evil conglomerates go, Comcast really isn't that bad. In fact, I prefer them over Time Warner, AT&T, Disney, and especially News Corp.

And, I like the way that NBC presents their sports. It's classy. None of the annoying FOX attitude, no brain-dead "cheerleader" announcers, no gimmicks, no deplorable debate shows. Just the sports, accompanied by intelligent commentary and analysis. Oh, and there's this: NBC SPORTS NETWORK AIRED LIVE CURLING LAST MONTH.

Perhaps their no-nonsense approach to sports is why NBC Sports Network is struggling. FOX and ESPN do things the way they do them because the "lowest common denominator" approach is usually effective. Well, I'd like to lend my support to the way NBC does things. They do it right. And, I'd like to encourage you to change your sports viewing habits. Most sports fans are conditioned to just turn on ESPN when there's "nothing else on" out of habit. Why not try NBCSN instead?

In fact, let's take a look at what NBC Sports Network is airing this weekend, starting at 4 PM this afternoon:

Friday 4 PM: Three hours of studio shows. Nobody watches these, because sports studio shows are not appointment television, and people are conditioned to turn on ESPN first when looking for that sort of thing. Well, give NBCSN a try! They're way better than the crap ESPN is airing these days.

Friday 7 PM: A college hockey game. While ESPN is showing college basketball conference tournaments all week, NBC Sports Network has been relegated to showing college hockey conference tournaments. Well, college hockey is pretty cool, too!

Saturday morning: Hunting and fishing shows! Hey, ESPN used to show a lot of hunting and fishing shows on weekend mornings, too. For all I know, maybe ESPN2 still does. I don't hold this against them one bit, because these shows get surprisingly good ratings. Some weekends, the morning hunting shows are the highest rated programs NBCSN airs all week (which is just sad).

Saturday 1 PM: Re-air of Formula One qualifying (which aired live overnight). I'm a big Formula One fan, and I am thrilled at what NBC Sports is doing with F1. They are promoting it heavily and going "all in" with it, much more so than FOX/SPEED did. It's not that FOX/SPEED did a bad job - they were fine - but I really like the level of attention that F1 is getting over at NBC. They're actually trying to make it a centerpiece of their lineup.

Most impressive is that they're going to air the Grand Prix of Monaco live on NBC in May. Not on NBCSN; NBC network. Live on a Sunday morning. Wow! The FOX network never aired live races on a Sunday morning (only Sunday afternoons, often on tape delay). Also, NBCSN hired most of the F1 announcing crew away from SPEED, which was the smartest thing they could have done. Great move. Of course, when they actually start airing the races this weekend, we'll see how good a job they do it. But I'm very optimistic, perhaps much more so than I should be. If it doesn't work out, it won't be for lack of effort.

Saturday 3 PM through the evening: NBCSN is doing another thing today that I'm curious about: an NFL Red Zone-style "whiparound" show (airing 5:30 to 8) for that will cover four Major League Soccer games simultaneously. Not unlike F1, NBCSN is going "all in" with MLS; between NBC network (which is showing a game at 12:30) and NBCSN, they're airing three live MLS games today, PLUS 2½ hours of the "whiparound" show on top of that. Impressive, if you like MLS. (I've been watching a lot of European soccer lately, but am still 'meh' on MLS.)

Mostly, I'm curious how you do a Red Zone-style show for soccer. Soccer isn't like (American) football, where you move slowly down the field, allowing the Red Zone channel plenty of time to jump in once a team gets close to scoring. In soccer, scoring chances can develop much more quickly. (Yes, really. Multiple times while watching a soccer game on the DVR, I've thought "clearly, nothing is going to happen for at least the next 60 seconds", and ended up missing a goal.) How do you apply a Red Zone-style approach to soccer coverage? I honestly have no idea, so I'm curious. What they'll probably do is just arbitrarily switch between games, and then break in with highlights (goals, almost goals, etc) as they happen.

Sunday 2 AM: I was worried that NBCSN would Olympic-ize their F1 coverage and tape delay everything, but no, thankfully, everything is live. Not that I'll be up at 2 AM to watch the Australian Grand Prix, but I am recording it, and since it's on live, I'll be able to watch it right when I wake up Sunday morning, instead of having to wait until the Sunday afternoon re-air to watch it.

(By the way, in between the 2 AM live airing and the 1 PM replay, NBCSN is airing more hunting/fishing shows, of course.)

Sunday 4 PM: Boxing? Hey, NBCSN, why not air the women's curling world championships (starting this weekend) instead?

Sunday 7 PM: Buffalo Sabres at Washington Capitals. I've been effusive in my praise of NBC Sports Network in this post (on purpose), but in regards to their NHL coverage, a couple of things bother me. a) Ed Olczyk and Pierre McGuire. Don't care for either of them. b) No Carolina Hurricanes games on NBCSN this year. Zero. Given that they air three games a week, the Hurricanes - who are a) based in the United States, and b) leading the Southeast Division - should be part of the national television package at least once. (NHL Network doesn't count.)

Now that I look at the programming schedule as a whole, it's obviously why NBC Sports Network is struggling for viewers. MLS, F1, and even the NHL (thanks, Bettman) are all "niche" sports. But that's okay with me, because NBCSN gives all of their "niche" sports the attention their fans want. They deserve a home, too! NBCSN turning itself into the "home for niche sports" - by choice or not - may not be the best approach, but it's great for someone like me. And if it means they're more likely to air live curling again sometime, even better! Because let's face it, the better NBCSN does going forward, the less likely they are to air things like curling and the Grey Cup. But we don't want them to do so poorly that they drop out of existence altogether. It's unlikely they'll disappear altogether, but as it stands now, a "niche" sports network like NBCSN is 100 times more vulnerable to another carriage dispute than a "must have" sports network like ESPN.

Sporting events on networks other than NBC Sports Network

I suppose there are some college basketball games on CBS and ESPN this weekend, and the NASCAR race on FOX, and there's probably some golf on somewhere, too. But who cares, right?

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