Sunday’s events at Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium had much of the world on the edge of its seats. Protests erupted over the ownership of the Glazer family who recently tried to move Manchester United into a largely-closed European Super League, after years of piling debt onto the club’s books. The protests led to the eventual postponement of Manchester United’s Premier League fixture with its biggest domestic rival, Liverpool.
Covering a live news story, NBC Sports’ Premier League studio and commentary team did an outstanding job of keeping viewers abreast of events and developments at the ground. The matches Sunday were aired on cable channel NBCSN. The network gave some context and decent analysis around the situation, but that unfortunately happened hours after the events of the day were completed.
On the flip side, NBC’s pundits offered some commentary that was off-the-mark particularly during the 11AM ET hour after the bulk of events that led to the postponement of Manchester United’s fixture with Liverpool had taken place. At the time of the postponement, whether it was because of being a Premier League rights holder or some other circumstance, NBC was clearly from my eyes trying to make the Manchester United supporters who were protesting look like the instigators of this situation, which they are most certainly not from my vantage point.
From about the 15th minute of the Newcastle-Arsenal match onward until late in the second half, NBC employed a split-screen with the ongoing match covering half the screen and the unfolding events at Old Trafford covering the other half.
At this point Rebecca Lowe as presenter and Arlo White as lead commentator were excelling. White noted he and his broadcast partner Lee Dixon had entered the gantry area at Old Trafford early as the likelihood of well-attended protests was well-known in advance of the match. From White’s broadcast position he was able to give a play-by-play of the ongoing events including a pitch invasion and ruckus behavior in the stands. We even witnessed the destruction of a tripod by a fan as a steward looked on.
After the postponement of the match was made official by the Premier League, NBC’s team did an excellent job of summarizing events as they happened from about 1:30PM ET onwards.
NBC’s ability to use its primary presenter Lowe and lead commentator White to cover and quickly digest breaking news was reminiscent of the job ESPN did during Euro 2016 in covering the strikes in Paris as well as the rowdy behavior from Russian fans plus the civil war within factions of the Croatian Football Federation that led to fan clashes between Croatian fans.
After the Spurs-Sheffield United match, NBC’s studio team and commentators did a fair job of summarizing the day’s events and giving some needed context on the protests. This however, was a completely different tone from what we experienced earlier.
At times before 1PM ET, NBC’s studio team was insufferable in their seemingly one-sided analysis. Lowe’s tone at times, especially during the 11AM ET hour, came across as patronizing. And the analysis of studio pundits Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe were at times way off-the-mark. I focus on the 11AM ET in particular because that was the regularly scheduled hour for pre-match buildup and kickoff. The network would have had peak viewership at that time from the majority of viewers who were unaware of the fracas that had unfolded earlier.
A few comments really irked me as a viewer who admittedly is sympathetic with fan protest movements, but has some knowledge of how these situations can be handled, having been on both sides of the desk as a front office executive at multiple US-based clubs and at other times an elected officer in supporters groups.
The first comment that was particularly bothersome was Robbie Earle’s swipe at the potential of fan ownership which many of the protesting United supporters are demanding. He implied fan ownership could not work because of the rowdiness of fans.
What Earle nor anyone else in the NBC studio conveniently failed to mention is that members own 75% of Bayern Munich, widely acknowledged to be among the best run large clubs on the planet and arguably the most successful on the field.
The protestors at Old Trafford demanding fan ownership which included displays of signs that read “50 + 1” were advocating a successful model in which 32 of 36 teams in Germany’s top two divisions are organized. Closer to Old Trafford, the original protests against the Glazer family ownership led to formation by Manchester United supporters of FC United of Manchester which has successfully competed in England’s semi-professional ranks for more than a decade, building a base of supporters and members worldwide, something unprecedented for a semi-professional club.
Earle’s studio pundit partner, Robbie Mustoe — who is normally level-headed — made a claim during the same 11AM ET hour that implied Sunday’s events would conjure up images of hooliganism in English football again. This seemed purposely designed to appeal to biases and wrong-headed stereotypes of many American fans. The reality is this, hooliganism in England’s professional game is limited in this era and any incident of hooliganism gets magnified beyond any reasonable perspective by the tabloid press in Britain and the media that covers soccer abroad.
It is no secret that many casual American fans of the Premier League view English clubs the same way they view American sports franchises – as an entertainment vehicle and one in which they tend to support management in any dispute with players and local fans. This is not the culture in England as many have discovered in the past few weeks, and it seemed NBC’s tone particularly in that 11AM ET hour was geared toward the American casual and not the hardcore US-based legacy Manchester United fan who is as angry and frustrated by the Glazer family’s ownership of the club as local fans in the Northwest of England are.
During that hour, Lowe’s tone as presenter had turned from the serious, breaking news host she had excelled at the previous two hours to patronizing, looking to facilitate a discussion that placed the blame for the events squarely on Manchester United’s supporters. Never in that hour was there a reasonable discussion about fan ownership, the Glazer family or any balanced discussion of how else Manchester United fans could express their displeasure with the current situation at the club.
At one point from his position on the gantry commenting on the events with Dixon, White mentioned the protests had nothing to do with the European Super League. Really? Then, what prompted this display at this time from United supporters? The timing isn’t a coincidence. The European Super League failure will likely prove in the long-run as the final undoing of the tense truce between supporters of England’s three biggest clubs (Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal) with each club’s distant American owners.
The coverage from NBCSN that hour was not balanced and quite honestly leads to questions the network’s overall arch of Premier League coverage. It should be mentioned though the tone was much more balanced later on in the day but did it take the producers and some actual time off-air for reflection while NBCSN aired a Barclays fan program from 1PM ET to 1:30PM ET and a match from 2:15PM ET until 4:15PM ET to move the on-air talent to a more balanced position?
Or were the on-air talent purposely conservative in their analysis feeling that they needed to tow the line as a Premier League rights holder representing a network that is about to open fresh discussions about the next rights cycle? Perhaps this caution is partially justified if this is truly the case but what was clear to me is that the tone shifted later in the day to a more balanced perspective for whatever reason.
NBC’s Premier League coverage scored big with its ability to cover live breaking news events on Sunday. However, the analysis of its studio and commentary teams lacked the proper balance and perspective during a critical hour when the match was originally scheduled to kick off.
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