What can a soccer fan get for $83 million?
Someone in charge of a top European football club might get an entirely rebuilt midfield for that sum—or, inexplicably, one world-class offensive player—to make a run at a league title and a spot in the UEFA Champions League.
Someone in charge of the top soccer league in America might come close to paying the salaries of every single player in MLS. (The total of salaries in MLS, before Clint Dempsey's mega-deal with Seattle Sounders, is somewhere in the neighborhood of $90 million.)
Or, perhaps with $83 million, someone in charge of an American television network could procure the rights to televise every single English Premier League match for an entire year. That is precisely what NBC did last year to secure the rights to Premier League matches in America for each of the next three seasons.
American fans can now watch all 380 Premier League matches, live, every year. Things are getting serious on this side of the Atlantic.
NBC has rolled out an immense marketing campaign to help grow the game in America, which they hope will grow their audience as well. Some may see the move as an enormous risk for a network to put that much money into a sport with a dedicated but relatively small viewership, but NBC—much like other American networks—is banking on a big soccer boom.
Stateside fans of the Premier League expect matches to be available over-the-air, and NBC Sports said its initial schedule will include 154 games on NBC Sports Network, 22 games on other NBC Universal channels and 20 games on NBC. There will be 184 games airing on Premier League Extra Time and 76 Spanish-language broadcasts on Telemundo (10) and Mun2 (66).
"Our goal and No. 1 objective is to be true to the sport," NBC Sports executive producer Sam Flood said.
Said Premier League CEO Richard Scudamore: "Fundamentally, this is a market of huge interest to our owners. The plans these guys have are a big step for us."
THE GROWTH ON AMERICAN TV
While perhaps not quite as lucrative as the potential transfer fee for the likes of Gareth Bale, Premier League matches in America have become huge business in soccer. NBC won a heavyweight fight for the foreign league's rights last year, outbidding Fox, ESPN and beIN Sport in a serious tug-of-war to become the flagship destination for soccer coverage in America.
For years, international soccer had a home on Fox Soccer Channel, which—as of the weekend of Aug. 17—will no longer exist. Some may see the demise of Fox Soccer as a bad sign for the sport, because losing a cable network dedicated expressly to one sport should never be seen as a good thing for fans of the game.
In this case, however, it is.
Fox isn't out of the soccer game by any means, creating a niche for the sport as part of its newly expanded cable sports programming of Fox Sports 1 that will include the FA Cup, the UEFA Champions League, a daily show dedicated to covering the beautiful game and, eventually, the rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
In a way—despite losing the rights to every European domestic league it once held over the last five years—some suggest Fox has just started to get serious with its coverage of the game in America.
ESPN, while losing out on their part of the EPL schedule after the NBC bid took over exclusive rights, is not forgetting about soccer either.
ESPN's coverage includes the rights to the 2014 World Cup, the 2016 European Championships, a ton of European World Cup qualifiers and international friendlies as well as a host of U.S. national team and MLS matches. ESPN has recently doubled down on coverage of the game in Mexico as well, airing Mexico's national team and Liga MX matches.
ESPN also has the rights to lots of games online through its ESPN3 service, including Brasil's Serie A, the Dutch Eredivisie and German and French Cup matches.
In addition, ESPN has already launched its own daily soccer show as well, making three networks—NBC, Fox and ESPN—covering the game every single day on TV.
Fox Soccer didn't die because there wasn't enough interest in the game; it died because there was too much interest in the game.
57 CHANNELS AND (SOCCER) ON
World football is everywhere on American television. Literally, everywhere. With so many matches for NBC to televise, there will come a time in the Premier League season when a match will be on the same channel as the Real Housewives franchise. (Imagine the cross-promotional opportunities there.)
American fans of the beautiful game have so many options for watching international matches that it's almost impossible for the casual fan to find the right channels to watch.
This, by the way, is not a complaint.
By my count, with NBC now offering every Premier League match on TV or online, there will be more than 30 matches available for American fans to watch—in English—every single week of the season.
There will be more than 50 hours of live soccer coverage a week in America, with each network trying to outdo the other for attention and interest. The level of dedication shown from each of the major sports networks is exhilarating for a footie fan in America.
It's almost too much to watch. Almost. It's certainly too much to find.
With so many networks involved in covering the game, the lack of a single destination for viewing does make things a bit more difficult to organize, but this is the greatest problem a fan looking for action on TV could ever imagine.
This is a far cry from where the game was 10 years ago. Back when Fox Soccer Channel was dubbed Fox Sports World, there was an extremely limited slate of games American fans could watch on live television.
In the New York City area, fans had to try to find the likes of Manchester United on YES network or other regional cable providers. (Note: Fans have long been able to watch English football on regional cable networks in America, despite the growing accessibility on national networks.)
Go back another 10 years and the game was nearly impossible to find, outside of a few U.S. national team matches and big international competitions such as the World Cup.
Unless you had an old satellite dish that could tap into coverage around the world (my neighbor had one of those, and it was amazing) or didn't mind watching Spanish-language coverage on the non-English-speaking networks, soccer in America was impossible to find.
Matches may be impossible to find now, but for a totally different reason.
A RETURN ON INVESTMENT
Before losing the EPL rights this year to NBC, Fox Soccer lost the television rights to La Liga and Serie A to beIN Sport—the sports arm of Al Jazeera TV that has swept up as many rights fees as possible*—one year prior.
While beIN Sport was unable to lock up the rights to Premier League matches, the fledgling network was able to procure the rights to many U.S. national team World Cup qualifiers, adding yet another cable network that has jumped with both feet on America's growing interest in soccer.
(*One mustn't forget about the Bundesliga, either, which has a home on the small soccer network GolTV through 2015. With the success of the top German clubs in the Champions League in the last few seasons, expect an enormous bidding war for future rights around the world when that deal expires.)
The increased interest has some wondering if there is suddenly too much interest in the game. From Martin Rogers of Yahoo! Sports:
NBC sees the PL as an ideal platform upon which to build the brand of its new sports network. The key question will surround the extent of the American appetite for the product.
Even non-soccer fans can be persuaded to take a look at a contest like Manchester United vs. Chelsea – one of the most mouth-watering matchups of the early season on August 26. But will there be much demand for Stoke vs. Hull or Cardiff vs. Sunderland, even among the hardcore fans?
The question is entirely valid. I've heard from those who covered Premier League matches for other networks that NBC may be surprised at how low their ratings will be, despite all the fervor and interest they've spun up for the season.
In addition, will the number of live games actually work against NBC? If there was only one match on TV, fans may be more apt to watch a top-four team if it was the only free choice they had. Now, with options, the audience will be fractured 10 different ways.
In the past, Fox Soccer offered select matches with its Fox Soccer 2Go app as well as the paid service Fox Soccer Plus, which gave access to any Premier League match. Both of those services added revenue to Fox's business model.
NBC's plan to give fans access to every match may serve to lower overall television ratings while not recovering much—if any—subscription fees from those wanting to watch a game that's not on TV.
If I can watch Everton and Norwich on my iPad or laptop instead of my TV for free, which enables my kids to get to watch more cartoons on Saturday, everybody wins. Everybody, except NBC's ratings and advertising departments.
IMPACT ON AMERICAN SOCCER & MLS
In its current deal with NBC—the same network that spent $250 million to procure the rights for Premier League matches for the next three years—MLS collects a fraction of those rights fees, taking in around $10 million per year in a deal that will expire in 2014.
MLS should have every reason to be jealous of the American television windfall bestowed upon the Premier League, but in the long run, interest in the game in the United States might benefit MLS immensely.
The timing of a new TV deal for MLS is perfect, coinciding with the increased interest in next year's World Cup and perfectly timed to include the addition of New York City FC to the league.
Having said that, the MLS prime-time ratings habitually fall flat of those for U.S. national team games and prominent European competitions. With so much soccer available to watch in America, some may find fewer reasons to follow MLS, not more.
Increased interest in the sport is great for the American league, but the access given to American fans may be something of a concern in the next TV negotiations.
THE UK COMPARISON
Soccer fans know how big the new NBC television contract is for the game in America.
Sure, it's not the £3 billion—or $4.6 billion—the Premier League is collecting from BSkyB and BT in the United Kingdom, but considering where soccer was just a decade ago in America, this deal is immense for fans of the game.
NBC has put so much money into the Premier League, and the financial investment in the rights has been buoyed by an immense marketing campaign to grow the game to an audience that never paid any attention before.
World football may never have the same level of interest in America as traditional football in the States, but the incredible interest in the game the year before a World Cup—and not after an uptake in interest coming out of a World Cup—is perhaps the most promising aspect of the new television landscape.
That, or the fact we can watch more Premier League games in America than people can watch in England.
That will never stop being hilarious.