Blazing a Distribution Trail in Portland

NBC Sports Group has extended its national direct-to-consumer streaming sports strategy to the regional level with the creation of a 15-game over-the-top package involving the National Basketball Association’s Portland Trail Blazers.

Starting Monday, Dec. 11, the $39.99 Blazers Pass, available to viewers within the footprint of the Blazers' television market, will offer a package of 15 games to cord-cutters and cord-nevers, as well as subscribers of pay TV providers that don’t have a distribution deal for the RSN. Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead spoke with David Preschlack, president of NBC Sports Regional Sports Networks and Platform and Content Strategy, about Blazers Pass and if the company’s live sports streaming strategy would extend to other NBC-owned regional sports services. Here’s an edited transcript of their conversation.

MCN: Why did you choose the Trail Blazers and NBC Sports Northwest to launch an OTT service around?
David Preschlack:
This was part of the recent rights deal we completed last year, where we procured all the games. Before that, there was a broadcast package of 20 games, so we wanted to buy a pay TV exclusive product to provide value to our distribution partners. Then, we wanted to work in this DTC [direct-to-consumer] concept as a way to experiment in the Portland marketplace. We have a series of products ranging from the English Premier League to track and field, cycling, rugby and motocross to [our] domestic and international products, so it’s not a new concept to NBC Sports.

MCN: Do you believe there’s enough fan interest in paying for an OTT service on the regional sports level?
As consumer habits are changing at a national level, consumer habits are changing on a regional level, too, and we felt that it was important in the context of our rights deal to have the ability to experiment by taking a subset of the games and selling them direct-to-consumer. In this particular case, that’s what we’re doing with 15 Blazers games. As has been reported, those 15 games will co-exist with the network, so fans who receive NBC Sports Northwest through our multichannel provider partners will have access to the games as well. The world is changing and our feeling certainly is that you have to embrace that and try to serve our fans in a way that’s reflective of a changing marketplace.

Related: NBC Sports to Launch 'Premier League Pass' OTT Service

MCN: Does Blazers Pass become the template for what NBC Sports will look to do with its other RSNs?
I think it’s too early to tell. Markets are different and rights deals are different, so I don’t think that we’re wedded to kind of any one approach going forward in terms of establishing direct relationships with fans. We’re certainly open-minded about how the industry and the regional sports landscape is evolving, and we want to continue to push the envelope to serve all different types of fans. We’re not living in an environment where one size fits all, and you’re seeing that in a variety of different ways.

The bundle is still a great product at a great price for a lot of consumers, but there are also fans and consumers gravitating towards digital [multichannel video programming distributors] MVPDs like Hulu or YouTube TV and that’s a great product for them. There are also some fans that are gravitating towards a product of 15 high-quality games for $34.99 — and by the way, we’ve already got some orders for the product. So we’re trying to provide the best value proposition that we can to as many fans as we can. How that evolves in other markets remains to be seen.

Related: NBC Sports Rebrands Comcast RSNs

MCN: Overall, how do you see the regional sports business evolving as it pertains to a changing content distribution environment?
I really believe that these types of experiments/product offerings are really, really well situated for regional sports networks to take advantage of. We’re targeted towards the region and in order to scale something like this, it’s obviously a lot less work than if you wanted to scale a product nationally. It enables us to kind of come in and get our hands dirty in the market. We have a lot of boots on the ground in Portland running our network, so we can learn and figure out how this can influence serving our fans better going forward.

I’ve always viewed the regional sports networks as incredible opportunities to experiment as the [TV sports] business in the broadest possible sense continues to evolve, and this is an example of that. We’re obviously going to watch this closely, and while we do not have any other plans right now to do anything like this in other markets, we’re going to be testing other things. It could be new ad technologies; it could be how we partner with different content companies; it could be a lot of different things.

The good news is, when you’re focused on experimenting in a market as opposed to nationally, you can do it quickly and efficiently, and then to the extent that things work, it’s completely scalable.

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.