Want to see how much the sports scene has changed in the U.S.? Consider that when the new NBC Sports Network (NBCSN) airs the Liverpool vs. Stoke City soccer match this Saturday at 7:45 a.m. Eastern time, it will be the first of 380 Barclays Premier League games to be telecast on NBC stations — including the broadcast network — as well as online. That’s more games than the NFL plays. English football has overtaken American football, in one sense.
Not that most Americans have an actual clue about who Stoke City is (think of soccer’s version of the plodding Cleveland Browns). But NBC is nevertheless launching unprecedented coverage of the world’s best soccer league, a right it purchased for $250 million for three years, slide tackling the rights from Fox and ESPN. “This fills a lot of opportunities,” Jon Miller, president of programming at NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network, tells TIME. “It’s upscale, it’s a very popular sport that had been undermarketed and undermerchandised.” NBC’s fee is triple what Fox had been paying, and doomed the Fox Soccer channel, which did the spade work of turning Saturday morning into a cult following for American soccer nuts. Fox sold some games to ESPN, another soccer hungry network that also got shut out by NBC’s preemptive bid for the Prem.
With both NBC and Fox launching new sports networks—Fox Sports 1 will live at the former Speed Network spot—this is a great time for sports leagues to be selling television rights. And this is the perfect product for hungry networks. The length of the English season, from mid-August to mid-May, is a programmer’s dream. Given that the 20-team Premier League is the world’s most popular league, rights have fees have been rising globally and NBC was willing to pay up. And compared with what the Premier League got for television rights in its home market—BSkyB and BT paid about $4.7 billion in a record three-year deal—it’s a relative bargain. “It’s consistent with our strategy with the Olympics, the NHL, or the NFL, where you buy the leader,” says Miller. NBC also has Spanish language rights, and will telecast 27 matches in the first three months on its Telemundo and mun2 Spanish language channels.
Although globalization and more frequent U.S. summer tours have made glamour teams such as Barcelona, Real Madrid, Chelsea and Bayern Munich more visible here in the past decade, Miller got a glimpse of the future a few years ago when his 18-year old son—along with friends— could be reliably found at the Miller household at 7:30 on Saturday morning watching Fox’s soccer broadcasts. Given that most 18-year-olds keep zombie hours and are rarely seen before noon, Miller more than took notice. “I learned early on in this business that you could learn a lot from your kids,” he says. Working in the U.K. made the case even stronger. “Clearly. we spent a lot of time in England over the past few years [for the London Olympics] and we saw the passion, ” he says. And that passion has clearly crossed the Atlantic, visible on Man U shirts in Kansas City as well as the coasts.
To borrow an NFL term, NBC is going to flood the zone. It will present marquee matches at the EPL’s well established Saturday game times: 7:45 a.m. (all times Eastern) and noon (the tea time game in the U.K.) and 3:00 p.m. for midweek tilts. But it is also going to let fans see the non-featured games, airing 5 games simultaneously at no additional cost to cable providers and customers and streamed on its NBC Sports Live Extra website. The catch, of course, is that the cablecos will have to offer a home for NBCSN in their lineups. That’s helped NBCSN gather some 80 million cable homes for its opening weekend. Despite the exposure, the audience for English football is not going be anywhere near the audience for American football anytime soon, especially given the mostly morning kickoffs, but NBC figures it has no competition in those time slots, and likes the upscale demographics that soccer draws here. (Ironically, in England soccer has been traditionally viewed as a working- or lower-class sport. The well-heeled play rugby.)
Unlike Fox, which retransmitted the U.K. broadcasts, NBC has committed a full team of announcers and analysts and is producing a ton of so-called shoulder programming, as in pre and post-game studio shows and other midweek programs. The announcing team is lead by Arlo White, a veteran BBC announcer recently doing MLS broadcasts, and includes two well known English players, Lee Dixon, a former Arsenal stalwart and Graeme Le Saux, who played for Chelsea, Blackburn Rovers and Southampton. Former England international Gary Lineker, the sly fox of UK football analysts, has signed on as a special contributor, while Rebecca Lowe provides the lone female voice as host in NBC’s Connecticut studios. Former MLS player Kyle Martino is the token American in the squad, and will work along with Lowe—call him the Connecticut Yankee.
Although it doesn’t seem unusual that NBC went all Brit for the Premiership coverage team, it’s interesting to note that the league has never been less British than it is today. Teams such as Man U, Chelsea and Arsenal are dominated by foreign stars such as Robin Van Persie, Juan Mata, and Lukas Podolski. Heck, there are even a couple of Americans, including Everton’s Tim Howard, Sunderland’s Jozy Altidore and Brek Shea and Geoff Cameron at…Stoke City. Oops, sorry for the Cleveland crack, lads.