On this week’s MLSTalk podcast, we spoke of NBC Universal acquiring the US broadcast and digital rights for the English Premier League. For those of you who would like an excellent primer on what NBC envisions for this deal, Jonathan Tannenwald has published an interview with NBC Sports President Jon Miller that sheds some light.
While I don’t want to rehash too much of what they spoke about, my perspective is that Major League Soccer could very much profit from this deal. While resources will be pushed into producing the Premier League, if done properly, the sport as a whole may profit from this contract.
The NBC deal signed by MLS in the Summer of 2011 was looked upon as a positive for the league, and from a production standpoint it has been a significant upgrade. Yet this has not manifested into the ratings boost everyone had hoped.
Soccer’s main struggle in America continues to be the stigma espoused by the American sports fan. Decades of generalizations about the toughness and excitement of the sport have been instilled upon generations. Many immediately scoff at the notion of watching a game on television – to prove it, write a soccer-espousing Facebook post and see how many of your friends deride it. It’s true that everyone has their likes and dislikes, and there are going to be people who always dislike soccer. But things are changing, and the demographic is there now – if you can reach it.
And this speaks to a point Miller actually brought out as the main reason this will help MLS: “This is good for MLS because it makes the sport more important to us.” Without improvements in ratings for MLS on NBC and NBC Sports Network, I would doubt the media giant would consider putting much more weight into covering the league if that remained their only soccer offering.
The Premier League changes that. Yes, much of their resources will be devoted to the English league. But with the investment NBC Universal made into the Premier League ($83MM per season), the stakes are raised. Much has been written about the growth opportunity of soccer in America, but finally there may be a network with the backing, infrastructure, and desire to fully promote the sport in this country.
Once the Premier League coverage begins in August 2013, if NBC Sports Network uses this as an opportunity to produce a top-quality soccer review show similar to Fox Soccer Report, that would be a positive start in my opinion. It might not be daily, but perhaps this allows for the intermingling of the Premier League and MLS, as well as other leagues and international competitions that interest Americans.
Even better would be if NBC Sports Network sets out to challenge ESPN as the dominant sports media entity. In this day and age, it’s all about making your product out to be better than the other guy’s. Watch ESPN’s Sportscenter and see how much they promote their own products over others. If you wonder how the NBA has gotten so popular, a lot of that has come from the extra promotion done by ESPN through a show that started as a pure results show in the 80’s but morphed into a combination results, analysis, and self-promotion tool.
And in that model, NBC could develop a key ingredient to success – knowledge of the players. Personal investment in a sport can be twofold – in a team and in players. The NBA became popular because of Bird vs. Magic, Jordan, Shaq and Kobe, and now Lebron. Soccer needs these kinds of personalities, but ESPN isn’t giving viewers this kind of insight into soccer figures. FOX Soccer has tried, but their viewership is insignificant on the grand scale. NBC has a chance to do it right, and help people learn about the Rooney’s, the Messi’s, and the Henry’s. If you can get names, faces, and personalities into minds, and people will begin to open up.
In additon to promoting soccer outside of matchday coverage, there is also a need for consistency in coverage. In Tannenwald’s interview with Miller, he revealed that NBC’s plans are for 18-20 EPL matches on broadcast NBC. That works out to about a match every two weeks. I could foresee two approaches to this process:
– Sporadically show the biggest matches – the Manchester derbies, for instance – regardless of their time or day off the week, making it very difficult for the newbie fan to reliably tune in for matches
– Consistently show matches from a specific time slot for weeks at a time – say 7 weeks in a row. This would gain some viewers each week, with the next match being well promoted both during the current match as well as midweek.
That second option would go a long way to win more people to the sport. I postulate that this would help MLS regardless of whether it breeds more of the Europhiles who find MLS less appealing. A percentage of the new viewers will want to experience the game for themselves live. Some may save their money for years to get to Europe, some may decide to go check out their local team to see what it’s about.
If NBC can generate more fans for the sport, many of them probably will not become fans of MLS – but some will. A big part of that will lie in whether they have the ability to adopt a team. I know I have a tough time sitting down and watching an NFL game that doesn’t involve my favorite team (thus the reason the NFL loves fantasy football, creating interested observers of otherwise neutral games). MLS needs to get into new markets, whether through expansion or relocation.
Sports get”big” in America because people know when and where to find them, in addition to feeling a personal connection to the sport. It helps to have personalities, and both the EPL and MLS have those. But when it becomes routine that they can find soccer on NBC or NBC Sports Network most Saturday afternoons, they’ll start making it a part of their weekend.