It’s news that will likely have slipped under the radar of the majority of football supporters in the United Kingdom, but the decision of the Premier League and the American television network NBC to continue the marriage of the top division of English football to the most lucrative sporting market on the planet carries a huge significance for the game in England. NBC signed its first contract with the Premier League for three years from the start of the 2013/14 season and, in spite of kick-off times that still rest at the unsociable end of the spectrum, their time so far showing live matches has been such a success that not only have they opted to renew their contract, but have also opted to double its length this time around, and all of this on financial terms which have not been made public but are believed to be significantly higher than last time around.
Depending on kick-off time in the UK and in which timezone an American viewer might be residing, watching the Premier League in the USA can be something of a labour of love. By way of example, the first match of this season’s Premier League between Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur kicked off at 12.45pm British Standard Time, which equates to 4.45am Pacific Standard Time, an exceptionally early start for those watching on the west coast of the United States of America at the weekend. Even on the more heavily populated east coast, this equates to a 7.45am kick-off for a Saturday lunchtime match. It is through this prism that viewing figures in the USA should be viewed. The average viewing figure for Premier League matches shown on the television is 470,000 per match, an increase of nine per cent on the year before, though these have gone as high as 1.4m people, for the match played between Arsenal and Manchester United last November, whilst the final day of last season was watched by an audience of five million.
There are advantages to the type of deal set up by NBC and the Premier League that go beyond merely the value of the contract, of course. Upon the start of its first season covering the league, NBC literally covered New York subway cars with advertisements for their new acquisition, which raised the profile of the Premier League in the city in tandem. From NBC’s perspective, meanwhile, the American soccer audience may be relatively small, but it’s also generally considered to be younger and more affluent than rival sports, and such demographics are extremely appealing to advertisers. There are, however, lies, damned lies and statistics. At the end of last year, it was widely reported that Premier League matches were now being watched by more people than watched NHL hockey matches on a game-by-game basis, but this reporting seemed to gloss over the fact that NHL matches largely take place when the likely audience will be at a game. Both football evangelists and detractors are probably guilty of being selective in their use of statistical evidence to back up their viewpoints to some extent, though.
If there is one area in which there seems to be no argument, however, it is that of the quality and depth of NBC’s coverage. The network is showing all 380 of this season’s matches live across varying formats and channels under its control. The actual match coverage itself is excellent. There’s considerably less bombast than a British viewer might be used to, but the match itself tends be placed centrally as the main event and much of the focus on individual players that we tend to see on the television here is lost. The punditry – from Robbie Earl and Robbie Mustoe, both familiar names to British readers of a certain age, even if in the case of Mustoe this may be as a player only – is excellent, and there is something very refreshing about watching Premier League football with much of the glitter and hyperbole applied by British broadcasters stripped away from it.
This isn’t necessarily all good news for everybody, of course. One of the reasons for the formation of the Premier League was to keep all television money for itself, and big television deals are only likely to increase the financial gulf between those that have and those that do not have in England. Within itself, the Premier League’s division of television money is, as a nod towards the importance of a degree of financial parity being important for competition, relatively egalitarian, but there has been little to no trickle-down through the divisions of the Football League and beyond, and the financial gulf between the gilded twenty and the rest only seems likely to grow greater and greater over time.
Then, of course, there is the small matter of the fact that money paid by NBC to the Premier League is money that ultimately drains out of professional football in the United States of America. The domestic league, Major League Soccer, signed a new television deal earlier this year with ESPN, Fox Sports and Univision earlier this year worth $720 million over the course of the next eight years. MLS has seen steady expansion since it launched in 1996, and attendances for last season were 39% higher than they were in 2000. The league system – which runs fundamentally differently to most other football leagues in the world, in that it operates as a single-entity, with teams and player contracts being centrally owned by the league – seems in good health and it continues to expand at what feels like a manageable rate, but there will be some MLS supporters who may well have reservations at money that might have been used continuing to develop the infrastructure of their own domestic game leaking to one of the richest football leagues on the planet.
There are lessons that may be learned from the way in which NBC has handled the Premier League since it took on the responsibility of covering this competition. The first is that, no matter how much we may criticise the Premier League on these pages – and we will, of course, continue to do so – to accuse the organisation of being stupid in terms of its business dealings seems some way wide of the mark. There are alternative ways of treating football clubs as businesses, but as a corporation doing what corporations do, the Premier League repeatedly demonstrates its knack for pushing its “brand” across the world. The second should, perhaps, be directed more towards British television broadcasters. The debacle known as Football League Tonight, which debuted on Saturday night on Channel Five, was as clear a demonstration as possible of the folly of adding unwanted bells and whistles to televised football. NBC strips its coverage back to the minimum, allows the game to speak for itself, and benefits immeasurably as a result. It’s a lesson that Five would do well to learn, and quickly.
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