Many sports fans (yours truly included) were hoping the introduction of the NBC Sports Network would finally mean real competition for the Worldwide Leader, ESPN.  Not that ESPN is bad or evil, or that NBC would be the best thing in the history of sports on TV.  But, that true competition would make ESPN better and would provide even more options for fans seeking to avoid staged debate, stale opinions, and endless crossover.  However, as our friend John Ourand at SportsBusiness Journal documents in vivid detail, NBC Sports Network has actually done worse numbers than its predecessor Versus.  In fact, NBCSN may be further away now from competing with ESPN than it was just 12 months ago.

How did we get here?  And how can NBCSN look to recapture what momentum it’s already squandered? First, let’s take a look at some startling facts.  The much maligned The Daily Line, you know, one of the worst sports shows in history, averaged twice as many viewers as NBCSN’s answer to SportsCenter, the daily NBC Sports Talk.  Now, The Daily Line did have this going for it.  But, how can NBCSN justify losing almost half its viewership from a craptastic mess into a legitimate sports/news program that was supposed to become the station’s flagship show?  Yes, hot chicks mean viewers, but the dismal viewership of NBC Sports Talk is unfortunately a trend spreading across the entire network at its infancy.

Live NHL broadcasts continue to be the most watched programming on the network.  Indycar and Tour de France… well, any live sport on NBCSN seems to do better than other programming, probably not a surprise.  But, it’s just how dismal NBCSN’s other programming is doing that has to be causing indigestion for those banking on the network’s success.  Among studio shows, only NHL postgame shows and NFL Turning Point have been able to match the paltry success of past trainwreck TV like the T.Ocho Show and Junior Seau’s Sports Jobs.  Even the great Bob Costas could only draw around 167,000 viewers for his debut town hall on the network.  And then there’s the ratings Darren Rovell is drawing for his show.  According to TVSportsRatings, on February 10th, Rovell’s 8,000 viewers tied for 2,452nd out of 2,544 telecasts on ad-supported national cable shows.  That’s in the bottom .5% of cable shows…

The most successful non-NHL programming happens to be the shows NBC is trying to move NBCSN away from, the outdoors.  Of course, Versus has a history dating back to their origin as the Outdoor Life Network of catering to outdoor and hunting enthusiasts.  However, even these popular programs are losing viewers due to the transition in branding from Versus to NBC Sports Network.  Loyal viewers are being turned off by a marginalization of their favorite programs while new viewers aren’t being attracted either.

ESPN wasn’t a success overnight, and NBCSN won’t be either.  If anything, ESPN’s presence as a monopoly over the sports television empire will make it that much more difficult for NBCSN to become a challenger in the next 10, 15, or 20 years.  The margin for error for NBCSN is very small to show growth in these first few years, no matter how miniscule it is.  And right now, it seems as if the product NBCSN is putting on the airwaves isn’t good enough to draw eyeballs away from other outlets.  There’s no doubting the quality of programming is much improved from Versus, so what’s missing?

For one, NBCSN needs time it doesn’t have.  It needs time to develop the channel as a destination brand for sports viewers.  It’s not like NBC can air exotic sports fans have never seen before like ESPN did in its heyday with Aussie Rules Football and the America’s Cup.  It needs to bring viewers from the rest of the Comcast empire (Golf Channel, NBC Sports, regional Comcast networks) to NBC Sports Network and keep them there.   Of course, the easy answer is for NBCSN to acquire major live sports like the NFL or major college football/basketball.  And no, the CAA doesn’t qualify as major college athletics.

The most important thing NBCSN can do is to forge an identity as an alternative to ESPN, and not a second rate clone.  That means further promotion of sports ESPN chooses to ignore like hockey and domestic soccer.  That means acquiring other sports or college conferences that don’t have their existence tied to ESPN (the SEC, Longhorn Network), or FOX (Big Ten Network, Pac-12).  SBJ’s suggestions of NASCAR, the Big East, and MLB seem to be a great start for properties to add to the live niche sports NBCSN already carries. 

However, as ESPN is proving to excess, a sports network can’t be built on live events alone in this day and age.  A true identity for the young network can only truly begin when NBCSN gets a marquee personality to build the network around.  Someone that can carry the flag for NBCSN every day that viewers want to tune in and see.  This is the opposite of Bob Costas coming down from on high once every quarter.  Dan Patrick does the network no good if he only anchors an NFL highlight show that airs at 10pm on a Thursday either.  Why wouldn’t NBCSN make a move for DP’s successful radio show (airing on DirecTV) and air it live in the morning to counter ESPN’s morning talk shows.  So many networks are going to the radio on TV format that it wouldn’t be a foreign concept, and the show has an established audience.

Just like finding the right fit is important for NBCSN to develop an identity as an ESPN alternative, they have to find marquee personalities who can carry the network as a daily alternative to ESPN.  We’ve already speculated about names like Scott Van Pelt and Michelle Beadle.   Both are soon-to-be free agents at the WWL and would be a perfect 1-2 punch to put NBCSN and any new original programming on the map.  

In the end, there is no perfect answer to the next steps for NBCSN.  Bringing in marquee personalities might bring them more cachet when going after live sporting events.  Having more quantity and quality of live sporting events would help to bring in marquee personalities.  If anything, the fact that the channel is in its infancy allows it the latitude to have a slow start.  NBC is in this for the long haul and stumbling out of the gates is worrisome, but not an immediate death knell.  However, just how slow a start it is having (down over 20% from last year) makes their uphill climb to relevancy that much more daunting.  If they ever want to be the AFL to ESPN’s NFL, they have to start showing signs of life sooner rather than later.  Or else, the XFL might turn out to be more of an appropriate analogy, a living hell NBC doesn’t want to suffer through again.

[SportsBusiness Journal