A whole new ball game: The Premier League is back and this time the Americans are watching
The Premier League is getting a major push on US television. Jack Pitt-Brooke reports on how our beloved game went big Stateside
Saturday 17 August 2013
From sea to shining sea, they massed last month to see their heroes. Houston, Dallas and Philadelphia saw one tour, San Jose and Portland another. Stoke City and Norwich City were in town.
This has been the summer that the English Premier League arrived in mainstream America. It began in May with Chelsea and Manchester City playing two post-season games in New York and St Louis. It ends – with all the touring teams back at home ready for today's kick-off – with New York City adorned with adverts for the beautiful game. Specifically, our beautiful game.
Subway cars are coloured alternate red and white, demanding in the familiar font, 'Keep Calm and Pick Arsenal' or 'Keep Calm and Pick Tottenham'. Manhattan is a long way from Moss Side, but there is the same treatment for Manchester City, as well as for United, slightly less in need of American promotion.
Dwarfing all of that, above ground in Times Square, is a giant billboard of Spurs'f Gareth Bale, arms outstretched mid-celebration, towering above New York City's neon homage to mass commercialism.
It's all there for a reason. Today is not just the start of a new season but of a new era for Premier League football – the first of three seasons to be shown in the US on NBC, who paid $250million for the privilege. Having spent heavily on the rights, NBC have been promoting their product just as hard, making sure that no one is in any doubt where they can watch Swansea City vs Manchester United at 12.30pm (EST) today.
That deal is what marks the EPL (English Premier League), as Americans call it, as one of the most popular and lucrative British exports ever to the United States. It might not quite be a Beatles-on-Ed-Sullivan moment, though. This has been a very gradual invasion.
NBC will be showing 20 games on their national free-to-air channel, the rough equivalent of a BBC1 or ITV1. This is the home of the great staples of modern American fiction – Friends, Cheers and Seinfeld. But now, every other Saturday lunchtime, it will host Robin van Persie, Sergio Agüero and the rest – Danny Graham, Dwight Gayle and Gary Hooper should all be there too.
Far more football will be on NBC Sports Network, their subscription channel, which is part of the network's desperate push to supplant ESPN as the main provider of televised sport to America. Clearly, NBC feel they have their hands on something special.
"We saw it as an enormous opportunity to be involved with some of the top international brands in the world," says NBC Sports' president of programming Jon Miller. "We pride ourselves at NBC by our association with certain leagues or certain properties – we are the home of the Olympics, we're the home of [the NFL's] Sunday Night Football, which is the number-one property in all of television, not just sports. We have NHL, we have the Kentucky Derby, the have the US Open, we have the Ryder Cup."
And, amid all this, six games every weekend from England's top division. Most of them will be on NBCSN, but those games which they cannot show – all the other Saturday 3pms, which are not allowed on television here, and other simultaneous games – will be available to watch for free online or on mobile devices to NBCSN subscribers.
On top of all of this will be 30 hours of what NBC call 'shoulder programming' – their own versions of a Match of the Day-style highlights shows. NBC will continue a policy used by previous broadcaster, ESPN, of using English accents. Rebecca Lowe will host from a studio in New York but most of the commentary – led by Arlo White, formerly of BBC 5 Live – will be done from the games themselves. "We are using only English talent," explained Miller, "because we insist on it being authentic. We think that the English football announcers are the best in the business. People know that we take this very seriously and we will give this our best shot."
There is certainly pressure on NBC to do this well. The thrill of soccer in general – and the Premier League in particular – for broadcasters is the potential for expansion. It is already popular enough, but its growing profile, its importance to the young, is what makes it such a catch.
A study by Repucom into the popularity of the 2011-12 Premier League in the US showed that its games had a cumulative audience of 167 million. More specifically, it found that 28 per cent of men aged 16 to 34 were interested in the Premier League. Even better than that, an ESPN poll last year, asking Americans what their favourite sport was, ranked professional soccer second among 12-24 year olds. It was easily beaten by NFL, of course, but it ranked just ahead of NBA and well ahead of baseball and ice hockey.
It was not always so. In the 1990s, the already distant pre-Abramovich Premiership was a niche field abroad. Football was broadly played, of course, but there was not enough coverage to sustain interest in the English game.
Following English football was almost a statement of indie intent. Rivers Cuomo, of American rock band Weezer, was pictured in the Sheffield Wednesday home shirt of the mid-1990s. Pavement lead singer Stephen Malkmus, a self-described Hull City fan, wore a Luton Town home shirt in one video, while bandmate Scott Kannberg wore an away shirt in a Jay Leno appearance.
Liking soccer itself was perfectly natural, up to a point – it is one of the biggest participation sports for American youngsters, both male and female. This is less true now, but a preference for soccer throughout high school – over the big American sports – almost suggested an alternative or outsider interest. Like a predilection for free jazz or Dogme films.
Tim Kafalas is now an editor at MTV in New York City. Like many Americans, he grew up playing "a bit" as a kid but stopped when "it was time to play 'real' sports". He later picked up the game through playing Pro Evolution Soccer on the PlayStation at work and learned about the different leagues, teams and players.
"Most people thought it was a bit strange that I was into soccer, and they found it rather disturbing that I enjoyed it more than [American] football," he explains, "and honestly that made me like it more."
The experience of following the Premier League from the US was categorically different from the front-room national network ease of today and 19 other Saturday lunchtimes this season. Through the late 1990s, ESPN2 or Fox Sports World – both cable channels – would often show one Premier League game each week. This was long before the era of live streaming – which has itself accelerated America's engagement with English football. Fans – expats and niche enthusiasts – would have to gather on weekend mornings in bars to catch whichever game was on. Tim Kafalas's own experiences reflect this shift: "The only option we had for a while was a few shitty NYC bars. Now there are a ton of them".
The catalyst for turning this latent soccer interest into a genuine following, perhaps more than anything else, was the US men's national team. (The US women's team is a long storied success, twice winning the World Cup.) The 2002 men's World Cup was still a rather minority interest in America – the United States did just as well as England, reaching the quarter-finals. But the games were on at obscure times and the long-awaited hook to the American public did not quite happen. Four years later, although the US did not get out of the group, there was more attention.
In 2010, the dam burst. Ratings on ESPN and ABC were up 40 per cent from those four years before and games involving the US became, in a way that was never quite true before, national events.
When the US drew 1-1 with England in Rustenburg, 13 million watched in total on ABC and Spanish-language channel Univision. When the US dramatically beat Algeria to progress out of Group C, over six million watched Landon Donovan's 91st-minute winner, even though it was 10am on a Wednesday morning on the East Coast. The last-16 tie, when Ghana beat the US 2-1 in extra-time, garnered very nearly 20 million. The final, when Spain beat The Netherlands, 24.3 million – the most-watched game in American history.
As well as changing America's view of football, the 2010 World Cup changed how America viewed football broadcasting. In 2006, ESPN used baseball commentator Dave O'Brien to cover the World Cup, with clumsy results. In 2010, though, they used Ian Darke, Martin Tyler, Roberto Martinez and others rooted in English football, to some acclaim.
NBC are following suit. Earlier this month they released a short promo film, with Saturday Night Live's Jason Sudeikis – one of NBC's biggest attractions – playing 'Ted Lasso', a new Texan coach at Tottenham. The jokes are well-worn – "We're going to get into the play-offs" and so forth – but NBC are aware of the importance of expertise. "You have to respect the fan, you can't talk down to the fan," explains the network's Jon Miller. "You have to understand that these are very intelligent, smart soccer fans and we will do everything we can to live up to their expectations."
Those new football fans, hooked after the World Cup, wanted someone to keep them interested, and the success of the Premier League is in best meeting that new need. "After the 2010 World Cup it was no longer like a circus leaving town," explained Roger Bennett, of ESPN and Grantland's 'Men in Blazers' podcast. "There was a big wave of new fans." (Like Tim Kafalas, Bennett also cites a computer game – EA Sports' Fifa franchise – as a key booster of interest. The video game is almost as big in the US as it is in Europe, selling 353,000 copies on its North American release day last year.)
Since the start of the 2009-10 season, Fox Soccer, who had the rights to show the Premier League, had been sub-licencing one game each week to ESPN2, who had a far larger reach. The numbers started to grow – the average viewership for a live Premier League game on ESPN2 in 2009-10 was 270,000 but when Arsenal beat Chelsea 3-1 in December 2010, a record 610,000 watched.
The following season, Premier League games started to cross tentatively into free-to-air, rather than cable, television. Fox showed Liverpool's 2-1 win at Stamford Bridge in November 2011 on their main channel, for free but on delay, and it was viewed by 1.67 million people. Even on ESPN2 on cable, Manchester City's crucial defeat of Manchester United on their way to the 2011-12 title drew over one million viewers. NBC are confident of breaking these numbers with their free-to-air games and may well break the seven-figure mark on NBCSN on cable too.
The reason why the Premier League does so well on American television is the same reason why many thought it would fail. The oddness of the kick-off times – Saturday 7.45am, 10am and 12.30pm, Sunday 8.30am and 11am, all on the East Coast – do the Premier League a favour. They would never win a straight contest with the NFL, college football or the NBA. But because of their morning and lunchtime slots, they avoid such competition. Never going over two hours from start to finish, they are also far more digestible than a drawn-out NFL or baseball game, providing a lighter form of daytime entertainment.
That might well be the problem with Major League Soccer (MLS). All the interest in the Premier League seems to mean that America's own domestic competition misses out. NBC have a deal with MLS – as do ESPN and Univision – for which they paid $10m per year. But MLS makes little impression on free-to-air television, and those games on cable do not pull in very many – roughly 100,000 viewers on NBCSN, closer to 300,000 on ESPN. The MLS Cup Final last December drew 1.3 million, which is high by its own standards but not as good as big Premier League games. Many are happy to wear the label of 'Eurosnobs', preferring foreign soccer to their own. Although, for all the growing success of the Premier League, the most-watched soccer in the United States remains the Mexican league, largely on Univision.
All this is despite an MLS which is strengthening. There are vibrant fan cultures, taking European inspiration, especially at Philadelphia Union and DC United. The Seattle Sounders, one of the best-supported sides, have just brought Clint Dempsey back from Tottenham Hotspur, a high-profile move presumed to be beyond most MLS clubs. And Manchester City are forming their own MLS team, New York City FC, who will kick off somewhere in the city in 2015.
But, for now, there is only one game in town. NBC hopes that attaching Premier League games to MLS will increase ratings for the American competition, knowing that viewers will not flock to it unprompted. Maybe the Premier League and the MLS will settle into mutually beneficial compromise, and increased football audiences will benefit the American game. But the lesson from England is that when the Premier League begins to grow, it is difficult to stop it.
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