Trying to gauge what it can sell directly to cord cutters, NBC is launching its direct-to-consumer Premier League product with the start of the season this weekend.
The company still will air about 250 soccer matches on its television networks, mostly NBCSN, NBC and CNBC. But 130 games are being moved to its stream.
Priced at $49.99 as "Premier League Pass," on NBC Sports Gold, those matches previously had been available to cable subscribers as Premier League Extra Time on overflow channels and as part of the regular NBC Sports app.
"We're cognizant of the media world changing and we have experimented with Tour de France in the past and cycling more broadly," said Rick Cordella, NBC Sports Group's executive vice president and general manager of digital media. "We felt like it made sense to experiment and put this behind the pass wall."
The season started when Arsenal hosted Leicester in the first Friday night opener in Premier League history. That match was on NBCSN, which also will air Watford-Liverpool and Chelsea-Burnley on Saturday, when CBNC will televise Everton-Stoke and the main NBC network the Brighton-Manchester City late game. And on Sunday, NBCSN will broadcast Newcastle-Tottenham and Manchester City-West Ham.
Three Saturday games that would have been on cable overflow channels will now be streaming only: Crystal Palace-Huddersfield, Southampton-Swansea and West Bromwich Albion-Bournemouth.
"Obviously the big guys in linear television aren't going to wait around to have Netflix and Amazon and Google eat their lunch," said former CBS Sports President Neal Pilson, now a television consultant. "They're starting to put themselves in a position to compete with the over-the-top platforms. They're not abandoning the money tree at this point, which is linear television, but they're looking ahead."
The overflow games had not been rated but were viewed by at least several thousand people on streams in the past, Cordella said.
At least three matches per team will be on Premier League Pass this season along with wraparound content such as news, previews, reviews and magazine shows.
NBC would not say how many subscriptions had been purchased. Soccer joins cycling, track and field, rugby and motocross on NBC Sports Gold, which launched ahead of the 2016 Tour de France.
Some soccer fans objected to the change. Christopher Harris wrote on World Soccer Talk that "the peacock has made their first major faux pas in covering the world's most popular sports league" and called it a "giant step backwards."
"Supporters of clubs such as Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester City and Spurs may not notice much of a difference next season," he wrote. "Neutral soccer fans or supporters of the 'other 14' clubs will face the difficult decision of either signing up for Premier League Pass to watch all games, or skipping the match and watching something else altogether."
Direct-to-consumer products figure to increase. The Walt Disney Co., ESPN's parent, announced this week that ESPN will launch a streaming service next year.
"I wouldn't say this is 100 percent 100 percent the future of where the world is going," Cordella said. "We're certainly are big believers in the cable ecosystem, where it is."
Pilson views streaming services as a test.
"The challenge for the sport, for the league, will be whether they take more money from an Amazon or a cash-rich Netflix but put at great risk their distribution platform," he said. "Example: Monday night football. All of a sudden Amazon wants to bid against ESPN. Well, Amazon's an unknown quantity, and I think a sports league is going to go very slowly here in taking an established product off linear television and putting it exclusively with direct to consumer."
Disclosure: NBC, NBCSN, CNBC and NBC Sports Gold are owned by the same parent company as this station.