More than 650,000 people tuned into NBC for South Africa’s win over England in the Rugby World Cup Final on November 2. That big number, and NBC’s overall success with the six-week long Rugby World Cup, validates the Peacock network’s investment in yet another ascending sport in America. Now NBC stands poised to do for rugby what it did for the Premier League – transform a well-kept secret of a sport into a mainstream success.
Jon Miller, President of Programming for NBC Sports & NBCSN, is justifiably proud of what his network has achieved with rugby. Miller told World Soccer Talk, “The 2019 Rugby World Cup far exceeded our expectations. We reached nearly ten million unique viewers on NBC and NBCSN throughout the tournament, while also seeing outstanding success on our NBC Sports Gold streaming product by making all 48 matches available to fans live and on-demand.”
Miller is the visionary who was instrumental in NBC acquiring Premier League broadcast rights back in 2013. Before then, ESPN and FOX Sports shared the broadcast rights, but they only aired a handful of Premier League matches a week. And FOX Sports relegated most of their matches to a specialty premium channel that few had – FOX Soccer Channel. English football, despite being the most-watched league in the world, was still unfamiliar to most Americans in 2013. It was a sport sought out by anglophiles and diehards. Supporters had to make pilgrimages to soccer-centric pubs, if their neighborhoods were lucky enough to have them, to see their match of choice.
As detailed in Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg’s book The Club, soccer wasn’t on Miller’s mind until he discovered that his teenage son was waking up before dawn to watch Premier League matches. Miller said, as quoted in the book, “‘I learned a long time ago that you cannot ignore what your kids are watching.’ There was an opportunity there, and Miller realized that the Premier League was “an under-appreciated, under-marketed, and certainly an underexposed product.”
After Miller sealed the deal with then-Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore, NBC changed the game by going all-in with their coverage. For the first time ever, American fans could watch live coverage of each and every Premier League match. And in another first, NBC would regularly broadcast select Premier League matches on free over-the-air television.
Thanks to NBC’s coverage, the Premier League is now a mainstream success story. NBC studio Analyst Kyle Martino told The Guardian last year that, “[w]hen we first started the broadcast, people thought giving Premier League game to the American audience was going to be overkill. But it was clear there was going to be a demand…I have parents coming up to me saying they love waking up on the weekends with their kids watching the Premier League.”
That demand is reflected in the viewing numbers. A total of 35 million Americans watched Premier League soccer on NBC’s networks in the 2018-19 season and the average match audience was 457,000. That’s compared to a 13.3 million total audience with a 220,000 per match average during the 2012-13 season – the last one under the ESPN/Fox Soccer joint rights deal.
Rugby is where soccer once was in terms of being under-appreciated, under-marketed, and underexposed in America. But NBC’s coverage is elevating the sport’s profile. Gary Quinn, NBC Sports’ Vice President of Programming, told Fortune during the last World Cup, “We’ve made a commitment to rugby…[it’s] a fast-moving and action-packed sport with a passionate audience that’s trying to engage new fans.”
Rugby has the potential to appeal to those Americans who have remained immune to soccer’s charms because it’s similar in some ways to the most-watched sport in the country – American football. Rugby, like American football, offers tactical field progression achieved through punishing tackles, precise passing, teamwork, true grit, surgical runs, and strength beyond strength. And rugby offers all of that in a fast, free-flowing, 80-minute package. As Chris Wyles, a three-time World Cup player and former USA Eagles captain, put it to ESPN, “[t]here’s a lot of movement, big athleticism, big hits, attacking play, and it all happens one after another. You go from attack to defense in the space of a second.”
A sure sign of the sport’s growth is that other networks are now following NBC’s lead. ESPN and CBS share coverage of Major League Rugby, a new rugby union competition with clubs in the US and Canada. 510,000 viewers tuned in to watch the Seattle Seawolves down the San Diego Legion in the MLR final on CBS this past June.
Dan Payne, US Rugby’s Chief Executive told CNN that, “I think we’re right on the cusp of really being able to commercialize and monetize the sport.” That’s borne out by NBC’s ambitious acquisitions of rugby competitions for its viewers. Miller adds, in his conversation with World Soccer Talk, “[w]e’re looking forward to the 2023 World Cup in Paris, when we can bring the excitement of the tournament to fans in a much friendlier time zone for America. NBC Sports’ extensive collection of rugby programming will continue to help grow the sport by showcasing the most marquee rugby events in the world, including the Guinness Six Nations Rugby Championship, the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series and the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics.”
The Six Nations Championship is the oldest international rugby union tournament in the world. It’s contested by England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, France, and Italy every year in February and March – perfect viewing for American football fans in that dead zone after the NFL season ends. Rugby Sevens is the breathtakingly quick version of the sport that prioritizes speed and space above all else. It’s like an entire sport built around Devin Hester’s returns. With games lasting only 14 minutes and with tournaments lasting only a weekend, Sevens is the perfect introduction to rugby. Fans who want to enjoy NBC’s many rugby competitions can sign up for their rugby-only Gold Pass.
All that access comes at a cost. Having a cable or satellite subscription is no longer enough if you want to watch it all. The Rugby Gold Pass is an over-the-top premium service that gives viewers access to tons of rugby matches that won’t be available on NBC or NBCSN. Similarly, Premier League fans who want to watch any of the hundreds of matches not on NBC or NBCSN must stump up for the Premier League Gold Pass. There’s a risk that putting each sport in a standalone subscription silo will limit growth among casual fans. The network assuages that concern by putting most of its best soccer and rugby matches on NBC or NBCSN.
The network’s strategy is paying off. America has the most crowded and competitive sports market in the world. Where other countries only watch one or two team sports in big numbers, we enjoy baseball, football, basketball, hockey, and soccer. And now, judging by NBC’s viewing numbers, it looks like we’re ready to join the rugby scrum as well.