The Peacock’s Wager

By August 15, 2014 Issue 03

 NBC’s huge bet on the Premier League is already paying off.


Photograph by Spencer Heyfron

Even the soothing timbre of NBC host Rebecca Lowe’s voice couldn’t lift the mood inside Peeve’s Public House, where the Fresno Gooners assemble in Central California each weekend, sometimes as early as 4:30 a.m., to cheer on Arsenal. On this particular Sunday, the Gunners, fourth in the Barclay’s Premier League standings, were facing Chelsea. It was a dismal showing. By halftime, as the first stabs of sunlight illuminated Peeve’s, Chelsea had a commanding 4-0 lead.

Jordan Wiebe, who founded the Gooners last year, has been following Arsenal since 2008, the year he worked in London as a social worker. Such is Weibe’s devotion that he has at least five Arsenal-themed tattoos scattered on his body.

Never before has it been this easy to be a rabid fan of European football in America—thanks to a big bet by NBC to air matches as they happen. It is a culture-warping change: Now superfans like Weibe can find football on one of the Big Four American broadcast networks during peak hours every weekend. “Until this year, I’d have to hope that ESPN or Fox happened to show the game or hunt down some foreign Internet site with Russian commentary,” he says. “But now that NBC has the rights to the Premier League, they’re showing every game. It makes it easy to be a fan.”

NBC executives are banking that there are a lot more Jordan Weibes out there. The network has plunked down $250 million over three years to broadcast the Premier League. While that’s far from NFL-size TV money—television rights for American football go for an astonishing $40 billion—it is a sign that NBC, which has one of the savvier sports departments in television, believes football is worth putting a marker on. “Soccer is not going to knock the NFL off its pedestal here in the United States, but it can be talked about in the same breath with any other sport in the country in terms of popularity,” says Jon Miller, president of NBC programming, who negotiated the Premier League deal.

NBC’s enthusiasm for European football comes as its involvement in the domestic game is ending. NBC is in the final year of it’s contract to broadcast major league soccer and opted not to re-bid for the rights moving forward.

But MLS viewership dropped significantly last year—NBC Sports Network’s 37 games drew only 112,000 viewers on average in 2013, an 8% drop from the previous year. In February, by contrast, the 17 Premier League games broadcast on NBC, NBC Network, and USA Network drew an average of 609,000 viewers—the best month of Premier League ratings ever in the United States. Plugs during the Winter Olympics helped. But even if these numbers slip in coming months, paying a mere $10 million more per year than the $70 million Fox and ESPN are expected to pay for annual MLS rights seems like a coup for NBC. (Also factor in the fact that domestic networks must invest in on-site coverage for MLS games, while NBC imports the live feed from its British partners.)

Eurekas come in the bathtub, and Miller’s came when he looked at his couch. It was there on weekend mornings that he encountered his youngest son, Robbie, watching television. “I would be leaving to play golf, and I’d tiptoe out of the house around seven, and there was my 17-year-old on the couch, sipping hot chocolate, and I’d say, ‘What are you doing up at 7:15, when you came home at 2:30 this morning?’”

“Robbie said, ‘Dad, I’m watching Manchester United,’ or ‘Chelsea and Arsenal are playing.’” As he walked outside his house, Miller would see a few of his son’s zombie-eyed pals trudging toward the door to watch a match. And Robbie didn’t even play football. After months of research, Miller bid for the Premier League rights.

When NBC’s sealed bid of three years for $250 million won the day, executives tapped a young producer, Pierre Moossa, to oversee the operation. Moossa had worked on a variety of sports at the network: basketball, horse racing, the Olympics, and MLS. But his biggest gig was Sunday Night Football, NBC’s ratings juggernaut, which averages more than 21 million viewers during the regular season. “Working on that show, you learn quickly that every detail is important,” Moossa said. “You’re constantly preparing and rehearsing.”

NBC’s on-air talent comes with a heavy English accent, with on-site announcing led by Arlo White, Lee Dixon, and Graeme Le Saux, with Lowe and the two Robbies (Earle and Mustoe) anchoring the studio show back in Connecticut. There are also American contributors, but NBC has avoided Fox’s attempt to recast American announcers of other sports into football commentators. “I like [Fox commentator] Gus Johnson as a basketball announcer, but it doesn’t feel right listening to him call a Champions League game,” Wiebe says. “American announcers tend to be bombastic, and everything is ‘epic,’ whereas there’s a subtlety to British announcers that better suits the sport.”

Moossa says he wasn’t focused on the nationality of the on-air talent. “The word we use is authentic,” he says. “I could care less if you call it a pitch or a field. If you’re going to contribute intelligent analysis, we want you on our team.” (There has been no attempt to Americanize the sport, as is the case with MLS, which employs cheerleaders.)

Nonetheless, fans have had a few quibbles with the transition of Premier League coverage from Fox/ESPN to NBC. “At first, I noticed there were a lot of spelling errors on NBC’s social media,” says Wiebe’s friend Tim Haydock, who teaches media studies at Fresno Pacific University. “They were spelling names wrong on Twitter.” And almost everyone I spoke to bemoaned the loss of ESPN commentator Ian Darke.

But the sheer commitment of NBC to broadcast live all 380 games of the season has won over fans. “The accessibility now is massive, and I think that’s why we’re seeing greater turnouts as the season goes on,” Wiebe said. “It’s a lot easier now for fans to follow their teams.”

The commitment to live coverage is a turnaround for a network that has often been pilloried for tape-delaying sporting events, as it did frequently when it owned the rights to Wimbledon (now broadcast live by ESPN). Even recently, viewers saw tape-delayed prime-time coverage of the Winter Olympics (supplemented by live coverage on lesser NBC properties).

But NBC’s saturation coverage of the Premier League actually betters what can be found in Britain. “There was a game on August 21 between Chelsea and Aston Villa that had been rescheduled and wasn’t broadcast in England,” Moossa said. “Arlo White, who was in England, tweeted that he wished he was in the United States so he could see the game.”

Miller said the network never considered tape-delaying games or broadcast gimmickry to insert commercial breaks. “It’s such a cosmopolitan audience,” he said. “It’s not like in the 1970s and 1980s. Our audience can consume media on phones and computers and follow the games instantaneously.”

When asked if the network was considering expanding its commitment to soccer beyond the Premier League—why not broadcast Real Madrid vs. Barcelona?—Miller demurred. “You have some great teams at the top of La Liga and the Bundesliga, but there’s not the depth of talent that you have in the Premier League,” he said.

For the foreseeable future, Miller said, NBC will focus on developing its Premier League coverage and retaining the rights once the bidding is reopened in two years. But even if another network takes over, NBC’s saturation coverage will have set the important precedent of full, live coverage.

Alas, for this particular Arsenal-Chelsea fixture, the Fresno Gooners probably wouldn’t have minded a media blackout. In the 70th minute, Chelsea’s Mohamed Salah fired a shot into the bottom left corner of the net for a 6-0 lead. And even the ever-optimistic Wiebe couldn’t resist a sigh.

“This is getting ugly,” he said, as the clock ticked away on the NBC screen overhead.

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