The NBC Sports Pub Pass.

There’s a long history of fans watching sports events in bars, but there are some particular challenges there in 2019, especially when it comes to content that’s only broadcast on streaming services. Accessing that content isn’t as simple as just changing a channel, usually requiring either a internet-connected smart TV or an internet-connected peripheral device (like a Roku or Fire stick), plus a subscription to whatever service the content’s on. That carries its own challenges in an increasingly-fragmented content landscape.

Moreover, broadcasters don’t always have a strong incentive to make it easy for bars to show games. When it comes to linear broadcasts, out-of-home viewing (which can be a huge boost for sports) isn’t counted until later and often still isn’t factored into advertising prices. But when it comes to streaming broadcasts, networks have some incentive to emphasize selling subscriptions to individual viewers rather than places that can show games to lots of viewers. So that makes it interesting to see a move like what NBC announced late last week, a “Pub Pass” in partnership with AEG that will let establishments buy easy access (with an included Fire stick, plus marketing and technical support) to a lot of soccer, rugby and cycling content that’s not shown on TV. And unlike plenty of previous premium and international events sold to bars, it won’t come with a requirement to charge a cover fee.

Here’s more from NBC’s release:

“We are thrilled to expand our relationship with NBC Sports to bring the most popular and requested international sports to American audiences in their preferred neighborhood locations,” said Dan Lyle, Director AEG Rugby. “There is no substitute for the incredible atmosphere that is created when passionate fans get together in a pub or restaurant to watch their favorite sports and favorite teams and with NBC Sports Pub Pass there will never again be a blackout or any other barrier preventing sports fans from gathering to celebrate the most important matches and sporting events from Europe and around the world.”

Portia Archer, Vice President of Direct-to-Consumer Services for NBC Sports said, “NBC Sports Pub Pass is a unique product that we are proud to have developed with our partner, AEG, to make premium international sport more accessible to U.S. viewers. We understand the importance and excitement of fans watching their favorite sports together. NBC Sports Pub Pass will support the traditions and strong communities within Premier League soccer, rugby and cycling, to make it easier for fans to watch together live or via replay on demand.”

A commercial establishment with an NBC Sports Pub Pass subscription will provide fans with exclusive access to 140 live Premier League matches – which are not available on TV – as well as the full event replay for those matches. In addition, NBC Sports Pub Pass will deliver expansive coverage of the most prestigious rugby competition and cycling races from around the world.

While this is a reasonably unusual move by North American standards (the NBC release says this is “common in most international markets,” but “this type of content offering is not currently available in the United States”), there’s some logic to this given who’s involved. On the rugby front in particular, AEG has a whole rugby division (launched in 2016), and they’ve been doing a lot to promote high-level games in the U.S. and on U.S. TV. And on the soccer front (which may be the biggest draw for viewers here), NBC has done a lot to emphasize pubs and other group viewing atmospheres, from contests for the best Premier League bar to Fan Fest events.

So it makes some sense that it’s these companies doing this, and there’s probably some financial merit to it as well. If enough bars sign on, there’s some revenue to be had there. And there’s also maybe some thinking of “some people may see a non-televised match at a pub and then decide to buy a package themselves.” And there could be benefits for the linear broadcasts too; maybe some viewers will be intrigued by what they see on the streaming setups at pubs and decide to check out the sport in question a bit more, including when it’s shown on linear TV. But just how well all of that will work out remains to be seen.

Overall, while some of the soccer, rugby and cycling events here are notable, what may be the most interesting to watch is if marketing these kinds of streaming packages to pubs under these non-restrictive (no required cover charge) conditions is something other broadcasters will eventually embrace, or if this NBC/AEG partnership will continue to stand out. There certainly are some bars that already show content from other streaming services like ESPN+ and DAZN, but that number could probably rise if those broadcasters emphasized bars the way NBC is doing here.

The question is if it’s worth it for those other broadcasters, though. As mentioned above, broadcasters aren’t always keen to emphasize pub viewing. For NBC and AEG, this seems reasonably logical, at least as an experiment. But how that experiment goes may decide if we see this approach become more common down the road.

[NBC Sports Group Press Box]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.