Weekly rugby is at last coming to American television, maybe just as TV begins to bow out.
NBC's obtaining rights to the English Aviva Premiership fulfills longstanding hopes of top-flight rugby union reaching the US sporting public. In a three-year pact beginning fall 2016 -- previewed this weekend in conjunction with the London Irish-Saracens match in Harrison, New Jersey -- the Peacock network could screen as many as 24 games per season, reaching up to 85 million households.
The pact culminates nearly a decade of NBC's nurturing rugby content. It also foreshadows the next era, in which even mainstream sports are consumed via 'over the top', or or Internet-delivered, programming.
As many as 50 games could be shown via NBC's online channels. The broadcaster also intends to create a rugby studio at its Stamford, Conn., headquarters to generate additional programming, Sports Business Daily reported.
Live sports competition is the primary reason stopping subscribers from abandoning cable and satellite TV subscriptions in favor or Netflix and similar competitors, a trend known as cutting the cord. In case that firewall is insufficient, NBC, ESPN, and others have been exploring the new era with niche programming.
The broadcaster has certainly been foresighted as regards rugby.
Initially gambling on the USA 7s, at a time when Fox Sports was America's leading network, NBC partnered with United World Sports (owner of the USA 7s tournament) in creating the College Rugby Championship 7s tournament and the Varsity Cup 15s competition, while also obtaining rights to the World Cup. Each move was intended to complement NBC's crown jewel, the Olympic Games, which newly includes 7-a-side competition.
To American rugby fans, NBC has clearly become the primary broadcaster, at a time when overseas competition has become more accessible.
The Premiership too looks the far-sighted player, not only catching up the Pro12, which has been available on satellite provider DirecTV, but also extending the commercial presence of its partners into a new market.