In the last year and a half, the Premier League has reached a new level of recognition and marketability in the United States. While to some it might appear this is simply part of a natural evolution toward more interest in the European club game, the reality is this push has come from the remarkable and unprecedented commitment that the NBC Sports Group has made toward aggressively promoting the Barclays Premier League.
In the 2009-2013 period when matches were primarily aired on ESPN and FOX Soccer, the Premier League experienced growth. However, neither network showed anywhere near the commitment to the league, the sport overall, to the education of news fans, or to the creation of creative, quality bumper programming that NBC has. This is precisely why concern is beginning to spread among American soccer fans with a new round of Premier League TV contractual bidding soon to start this year that the US rights could be lost by NBC for the period beginning in August 2016 and ending in May 2019. It’s very likely that ESPN and FOX will team up and launch a joint bid to dislodge the incumbent NBC Sports Group.
Simply put, the Premier League has a choice to make between a potentially lucrative financial bid from the combined weight of ESPN and FOX or continued upward growth and marketability from a continued relationship with NBC.
Why precisely are ESPN and FOX incapable of doing the job NBC has, and why should the Premier League renew with NBC? Here are my 9 reasons:
1- Programming windows for live games – As we have already seen in recent weeks with the FA Cup (for example, Crystal Palace-Liverpool being bumped to FOX Soccer Plus), FOX is unable to guarantee coverage of soccer matches on Saturday mornings. NBC can — be it NBCSN, or the spillover matches that end up on CNBC or USA Network. ESPN has similar bandwidth restrictions.
2- Over-the-air commitment – Unless ESPN is going to buy time on ABC and FOX Sports is going to commit to significant time for games on FOX network, the league is going to be in less homes on a regular basis than it is today with NBC’s almost weekly over-the-air coverage.
3- Bumper Programming – FOX and ESPN simply don’t have the programming windows or resource dedication to the sport to develop unique Premier League focused shows such as Match of the Day, Premier League Live, Premier League Download and Manchester Mondays.
4- On-Air Talent and preparation – NBC’s on-air talent has taken analysis to a new level. Robbie Mustoe is hands-down the best studio pundit American audiences have ever been exposed to for the Premier League. Robbie Earle and Kyle Martino do a better job than their predecessors at FOX or ESPN, and Rebecca Lowe is a fantastic presenter.
5- Pregame and postgame coverage – Not only are NBC’s studio programs more professionally produced and the talent better, but the actual content is far greater than anything before it. ESPN and FOX had the opportunity to contract with someone like Neil Ashton, a recognized top English journalist, but never did, leaving a huge void in the coverage on those networks.
6- On-site broadcasts – NBC’s impressive roster of commentators and presenters on British soil blow away anything ESPN did previously. FOX, the primary rights holder did not even attempt anything on the scale of NBC. Arlo White, Steve Bower, Lee Dixon, Graeme Le Saux, and Tim Howard have helped raise the coverage to a level completely unprecedented on American television.
7- Premier League Extra Time – FOX Sports charges $19.99/month for online coverage of leagues they cover whereas NBC gives it for free to any NBCSN subscriber while screening games live on spillover TV channels. ESPN nor FOX have the ability to replicate this formula.
8- Promotion on the network – NBC is always promoting the league on other sports programming while ESPN and FOX almost seemed embarrassed to promote a foreign soccer league on other sports programming. The institutional bias of many in the American sports media against soccer was often reflected by the snide attitude of ESPN presenters on other shows to highlights or promoting games. FOX Sports has very much a similar attitude. The passage of time has softened some of these attitudes but the Premier League potentially being on the same channel as Keith Olbermann, America’s single-biggest and demagogic soccer hater, is not a good deal for fans of the sport.
9- Where will the games air? – College football and College basketball take up a large amount of weekend programming time on the FOX Sports and ESPN Networks during the Premier League season. The commitment by these two networks to bumper programming in college sports as well as NASCAR means the Premier League WILL be relegated to second-tier channels or not aired all the time.
Regardless of whatever rhetoric or statements may come from ESPN and FOX Sports as they bid for Premier League rights, they WILL NOT be able to accommodate fans and promote the league with the commitment and gusto NBC has. Soccer fans across the United States should unite in support of NBC and hope the Premier League understands that the upward trajectory English soccer has enjoyed in this country over the last few years could flatline if the rights go elsewhere.
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