August 11, 2013 in Sports

Commentary: NBC wagers on soccer coverage

Kevin Baxter Los Angeles Times
 

When Kyle Martino was growing up in Westport, Conn., it was easier to find tractor pulls and Australian rules football on TV than it was to find the world’s most popular sport. If you wanted to watch soccer, you needed access to European broadcasters.

“When I was a kid and I fell in love with this game, I was watching games in Italian on Sunday mornings,” says Martino, whose understanding of the language remains no deeper than the menu at Olive Garden. “That was my soccer.”

But if soccer was once the unwanted stepchild of the television sports family, it’s now one of TV’s most desirable properties – so much so that NBC is wagering hundreds of millions of dollars and an unprecedented number of broadcast hours on the English Premier League, coverage Martino, a former Major League Soccer All-Star, will help anchor as a studio analyst.

The network, which spent $250 million to win the U.S. broadcast rights to the EPL over the next three seasons, kicks off its coverage Saturday with a match between Liverpool and Stoke City. It’s the first of 380 regular-season games the NBC Sports Group will offer live on an array of platforms, including NBC and the NBC Sports Network, USA, CNBC, Spanish-language channels Mun2 and Telemundo, as well as desktops and mobile devices.

“People are always looking for the best of the best,” said Jon Miller, who, as president of programming for the NBC Sports Group, was one of those who decided to roll the dice on soccer. “And clearly the sport is the No. 1 sport in the world.”

It doesn’t rank nearly that high with TV viewers in the United States, though. For starters, there’s the EPL calendar, which runs from August through May, leaving NBC’s coverage to compete against the NFL, college football and the start of the NBA and NHL playoffs. Then there are the early-morning kickoffs; coverage of next weekend’s Liverpool-Stoke City starts at 4:45 a.m. Pacific.

But buoyed by favorable demographics – EPL viewers tend to be more upscale and better educated than the general sports audience – Miller believes soccer will give his network a leg up on traditional sports broadcasting powers ESPN and Fox, which NBC outbid for the rights to the English league.

Martino, who previously covered soccer for ESPN and Fox, said fierce competition among the three networks has benefited fans in the U.S.

“Everyone’s trying to challenge the next person to raise the bar,” he said.

ESPN, which has the TV rights to next summer’s World Cup, is adding the daily news and information show ESPN FC to its soccer programming, for example. It will debut Sunday night on ESPN2.

Fox, meanwhile, is retrenching. After steadily losing broadcast rights to European leagues including the EPL, Fox is rolling its soccer coverage into the 24-hour network Fox Sports 1. Among the offerings will be UEFA Champions League and Europa League matches, Britain’s FA Cup, CONCACAF tournaments and weekly magazine and highlight shows

But NBC is going all-in with the EPL, scheduling more than 1,600 hours of annual programming.

“The idea is to give the audience everything,” said Martino, who is also NBC’s lead analyst on MLS. “Don’t try to pick what we think they’re going to be interested in. Give them the option to follow any team that they want. Give them an introduction to a lot of these teams.

“We think every single team is important. We think every single game is important. And regardless of who you’re following, you can go see that.”

The English Premier League doesn’t even get that much coverage in England.

“It could be more soccer than there is demand for,” Martino said. “But we would rather be the ones delivering more than people want as opposed to having our fans left wanting.”


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