Football season begins Saturday. I don’t mean American football, but football football. The kind you actually play with your feet that we narrow-minded Yanks like to call soccer.
In truth, the European season is already underway. Germany’s Bundesliga, home of Champions League finalists Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, began play last weekend, as did French Ligue 1 and its uber-rich clubs Paris Saint-Germain and AS Monaco.
But for all intents and purposes, the real season starts Saturday with the opening salvo of NBC’s new pride and joy, England’s (and Wales’ — I see you Swansea and Cardiff) Barclays Premier League. For the first time in league history, every game will be made available to the American viewer. The excitement is palpable as fans of the beautiful game salivate at the thought of watching multiple matches at once on TVs, tablets, laptops and smartphones. Those Crystal Palace- Norwich tilts are not necessarily must-see affairs, but we we will watch because we can.
The ubiquity of the broadcasts will result in an immediate jump in ratings as will the presence of a name brand. For all its efforts to bring soccer to the mainstream, Fox Soccer Channel remains a minor player in the sports market. The mere nature of its name keeps the station in a niche. NBC faced a similar problem with its own alternative sports network. “The Outdoor Life Network” became “Versus” before finally settling on the more user-friendly “NBC Sports Network.” “What’s in a name?” a writer much better than me once famously asked. For a sports television network, apparently a lot.
With the change to “NBCSN,” the channel gained instant credibility. NHL coverage increased, the network entered into the soccer foray with an MLS package and then buttressed it all with a successful airing of the London Olympics last Summer. The Premiership comes at the right time for a rising sports power in an age when the World Wide Leader suddenly has challenges.
NBC also benefits where FSC did not in that its primary sports channel is on most colleges’ basic cable plans. In my four years at school, my friends and I watched ESPN’s early morning broadcasts with regularity. When it came to catching a game on FSC, though, we had to huddle around laptops playing virtual Russian Roulette with illegal streams.
Buffering, viruses and getting kicked off the college’s internet as the result of policy violations compromised the endeavor. And we were diehards. Now, the Premiership will be more accessible to the youthful crowd that has driven soccer’s popularity, if not yet through the roof, to the ceiling in recent years. Most everyone in his or her late teens or early 20s has a team.
Perhaps the most casual of fans, he who watches the World Cup Final every four years, will tune in out of pure curiosity. When the numbers from the first month come out, NBC will surely deem its staggering $250 million investment worth every penny.
There is room for hesitance, though. The product, Premiership soccer, sells itself. People will watch and be entertained, helped along by the lead play-by-play talents of the fantastic Arlo White. With that being said, the challenge comes in selling NBC, and to a greater extent The NBC Sports Network, as a legitimate voice on soccer. FSC faced the issue of drawing viewers to its non-broadcast programming. Both the pregame and postgame shows featured prominent former players in Warren Barton, Eric Wynalda and Brian McBride. The group, however, lacked the cohesion and direction of a refined studio program.
FSC seemed content to stay a constant “work in progress” with the hope that fans would stick around to reap the pending benefits. Instead, the studio shows, which to be fair weren’t terrible, ultimately alienated viewers who had been clamoring for quality content for years.
It appears that NBC has learned from FSC’s follies. The network has added reputable voices — Robbies Earle and Mustoe, the aforementioned White, who has called MLS games and the Olympics for NBCSN, and Rebecca Lowe, who became the first woman to host a major broadcast of the FA Cup Final in 2012 when she worked for ESPNUK.
Clearly the effort is there. The advertising leading up to the big debut, on the other hand, has yielded mixed results. The TV spots have been fantastic (see here, here and here), and NBC miraculously turned the tired football-football trope into something hilarious. But on the other side, the Twitter feed still produces things like “Premier League 101” and “Social Media Red and Yellow Cards” that have been construed as laughable at best and condescending at worst. And then there’s this map, which is nothing short of infuriating.
I understand that the network’s goal is to grow its audience, but the quality of the soccer and its surrounding programming will determine that growth. NBC has come along at a perfect time. U.S. star Jozy Altidore has returned to the league that spewed him out just a few years prior. He’ll surely feature as Sunderland’s top choice striker. Chelsea and Manchester City will field teams oozing with breathtaking ability. They’ll fight for the title with incumbents Manchester United, who will take the pitch without legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson for the first time in league competition.
Story lines abound. In America, NBC’s unprecedented coverage tops the list. I truly believe the network will find great success. I can’t wait to join the ride.