Winners and Losers of NBC’s Game-Changing Premier League Breakaway Debut

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NBC Sports launched its first-ever Premier League Breakaway Show on Thursday, which ended up being an attack on the senses as goals flooded in throughout 90 minutes of soccer action.

Even for those soccer fans who were eagerly anticipating the debut of Premier League Breakaway on New Year’s Day, few fans were prepared for the sensory overload of NBCSN’s 2 hour broadcast. In a typical Premier League telecast, we’re accustomed to an average of 2.79 goals per game in England’s top flight. During Premier League Breakaway, we were blown away by 23 goals, which equals 724% more balls hitting the back of the net than usual (given that we were seeing 8 games at once instead of one). No wonder the reaction from soccer fans in the US was mixed, ranging from glowing praise to deep anxiety.

We were glued to every minute of Premier League Breakaway, and wanted to share our Winners and Losers from this historic program — the first-ever program of its type for English soccer on US TV.

 

Winners

1. NBC Sports’ commitment to excellence

Other than its impeccable production quality and focus on making sure that every word matters, the other biggest difference between NBC Sports and FOX Sports is that NBC has a corporate culture focused on listening to its audience and making changes when necessary. There’s no better example of this than the live Premier League Breakaway on Thursday when soccer fans in the US were disappointed that Rebecca Lowe was unknowingly giving spoilers as she switched to a development in every Premier League match, foretelling what the viewer was about to see and thereby eliminating the element of surprise which is one of the best parts about soccer being such an unpredictable sport.

Soccer fans in the US took to websites like this one and social media to share their disappointment regarding Lowe taking the oomph out of the live look-ins. But at halftime, NBC Sports changed its tactic, and in the second half there were no spoilers from Lowe. So every time the broadcast switched to a key development in a game, viewers had no idea if it was a goal, super save, a shot hitting the woodwork or something else.

NBC’s ability to listen to its audience and make a pivotal change in such a short amount of time can not go understated. No other soccer broadcaster in the United States does as good of a job as NBC Sports, and we can see why.

2. A Fantastic advertisement for the Premier League

Given its increasing TV ratings for Premier League games on US TV thanks to NBC Sports, the Premier League didn’t need another PR boost but it got one. Ratings numbers won’t be revealed until next week, but any mainstream sports fan accidentally or inquisitively finding Premier League Breakaway on Thursday would have been amazed by all of the action within 90 minutes.

On a typical matchday in the Premier League, it’s impossible to keep a close eye on every single match being played at the same time. Eyes start to get crossed and headaches are often induced when soccer fans try to watch games across three different devices at the same time (TV, tablet and smartphone, for example). So the actual experience of being able to sit back and relax and let someone else do the driving to bring all of the live highlights in one 90 minute block is revolutionary. On TV, that is (many of us are accustomed to listening to talkSPORT Radio or BBC 5 Live in the past as reporters from around the grounds provided their match updates). But the TV is more of an attack on the senses.

The reason I mention this is because it’s often difficult to witness all of the exciting developments across 90 minutes in the league. We often end up selecting the game of our choice, flipping channels now and again, and/or watching the highlights show later in the day. But so much is missed. And as we saw on Premier League Breakaway, I got the feeling that we got to see more of those narrow misses, those unbelievable referee decisions and the tense moments that happened throughout the league than we did previously. Apart from the goals, the Breakaway show was still a fantastic advertisement for the Premier League.

3. NBC’s desire to try new things

NBC Sports could have easily done a typical New Year’s Day coverage of the Premier League and showed the 90 minutes of Manchester City against Sunderland at 10am ET, and their typical half-time and post-match updates on goals that went in around England. But they didn’t. In one of only three opportunities to do Premier League Breakaway during an entire 10 month season, NBC decided to try something different. And for that they should be applauded.

Without any shadow of a doubt, Premier League Breakaway was more work for NBC Sports than usual. To launch a new show during the holidays must have required a lot more planning and coordination, and no doubt late nights, to make it all come together. The end result was an incredible success.

For a network that has been a trendsetter in the way it covers soccer, Premier League Breakaway is another huge watermark.

4. Broadcasting flexibility

With soccer being such an unpredictable sport, it’s often difficult for NBC Sports to decide which game it should feature in the 10am ET timeslot on NBCSN. During the course of this season thus far, we’ve had a few unmemorable 0-0 draws when other more entertaining games could have been shown instead. But it’s always difficult to predict especially given that managers may sometimes convince their defenders and midfielders to park the bus in order to salvage a nil-nil draw, which doesn’t make for great TV viewing.

But with Premier League Breakaway, it gave NBC Sports the opportunity to continue switching to the most exciting games that were happening. In the second half, we saw the end-to-end action between Manchester City and Sunderland (the Blues winning 3-2 in the end) as well as the comebacks by Leicester City (2-2 against Liverpool) and Burnley (3-3 against Newcastle United).

The freedom for NBC Sports to switch from game to game provided viewers with a guaranteed 90 minutes of excitement.

5. Equality

Following up on the difficulty in determining which game to feature in the 10am ET timeslot on a typical Premier League matchday on NBCSN, the reality is that two things come into play to help make the decision. One is storylines. For example, deciding to broadcast the Liverpool league game against Hull because of the Mario Balotelli saga (the final score ended up being 0-0), or showing Jozy Altidore’s debut game for Sunderland last season, etc. Two is ratings. If a top four team is playing well, they’re guaranteed to generate bigger TV ratings than a mid-table clash between two equally entertaining and deserving sides.

But the magic of Premier League Breakaway is that the 16 teams featured were on an equal playing field meaning that the most exciting developments in games were featured no matter who the team was. For fans of lower or mid-table teams in the Premier League, this was a breath of fresh air. If a team created a moment that was worth broadcasting, NBC switched to that game no matter who the team was.

 

Losers

1. Premier League referees

The biggest loser of Premier League Breakaway was PGMOL, the Professional Game Match Officials Limited organization, the body that manages the referees in the league. During a typical Premier League matchday, we’re likely to see isolated refereeing mistakes in the handful of matches we see. But with Premier League Breakaway, it was far easier to see the glaring mistakes made by referees given that 8 live matches were condensed into one 90 minute broadcast.

It also doesn’t help that the Premier League referees had a worse day officiating than usual. The catalog of mistakes included Hull being awarded a free kick on the edge of the area when it clearly was a penalty, QPR goalkeeper Rob Green handling the ball outside of the area but going unpunished, Chris Smalling handling the ball in the penalty area against Stoke, Liverpool being awarded a penalty for a “handball” by Leicester’s Wes Morgan that hit him in the face, Swansea’s Wayne Routledge being red carded for an innocuous incident, and so on.

To see these incidents in one 90 minute broadcast was alarming.

2. Why was the penalty awarded?

Given the feverish pace of Premier League Breakaway, it was sometimes difficult to know what exactly happened prior to a key incident. The best example was the second penalty that was awarded to Liverpool. The broadcast joined the game immediately before the penalty was struck by Steven Gerrard, but I still have no idea why the penalty was awarded in the first place because we didn’t see that action.

One of the challenges of a show like this is that so many things are happening at once that it’s difficult to show all of the key moments. Plus there’s no guarantee when the international broadcaster (IMG) will show highlights moments after an incident happens, which makes it harder for NBC to know when to stay with the broadcast of a game or move on to the next one.

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