What U.S. fans of English Soccer have been bracing for, and perhaps even fearing, for months has finally come to fruition.
The English Premier League is leaving FOX Soccer/FOX Soccer Plus at the conclusion of the 2012-13 season.
That is the bad news – but there is also good news.
EPL broadcasts are going to the NBC Sports Network as opposed to a start-up operation that had been rumored – or even worse, the rights going to Apple, which would had required subscribers to buy a special ‘Apple’ TV, among other things. Or in other words, selling one’s soul to the power of attorney of Steve Jobs.
Let’s analyze the ‘winners’, ‘losers,’ and how fans and ‘others’ shake out on the deal…
Winners: NBC Sports
As I have said before, a pro soccer league has finally made it mainstream in the United States. It just happens to be a competition that is played in the United Kingdom. Simply said, American sports fans want to see the best, and the EPL by far offers that over the North American-based MLS.
NBC signing on for $250 million for three years, 3 times over the current $80 million/three year contract with FOX, speaks volumes about the increased U.S. interest in the EPL.
All 380 league matches will be available on NBC’s platforms. Six games will be shown live per weekend, including: the three Saturday slots (early afternoon, the 3 PM window in which the bulk of the games are played, and the late game, similar to the late Sunday NFL marquee game); the two Sunday slots; and the Monday Night (Monday afternoon in U.S.) game. The remaining 3 PM (London time) Saturday games are expected to be available on various pay-per-view and mobile/internet platforms.
NBC’s acquisition comes on the heels of recently acquiring the Formula 1 racing series, which had also been carried for years on the Fox Sports platform. Those two properties will be added to the NBC Sports Network’s current packages with the NHL and Indy Car Racing, along with Olympic competitions.
NBC also was bidding aggressively for Major League Baseball, but they bailed out when the asking price got out of their range. Sadly, Tony Kubek is not walking back through NBC’s door.
Losers – FOX Soccer
Fox Sports appeared to have become the top player for soccer on the U.S. broadcasting platform when it acquired the rights for the 2014 and 2018 World Cups.
However, since then Fox has lost the broadcast rights to Italy’s Serie A and the MLS (to NBC).
Fox Soccer will not be going away, still having the World Cup package plus the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Cup (the ‘NIT’ version of the Champions League), along with the FA Cup Tournaments (England’s answer to the NCAA basketball tourney).
However, after that they are going to be struggling mightily for programming, which will now have to be filled in even more with the Scottish League and Australia’s A-League. And there is also Aussie Rules football and rugby, which currently air on the Fox Soccer Plus Channel.
Another question will be what might happen with U.S. television coverage of England’s Championship Division, whose top three teams are promoted annually to the EPL.
I see the Plus Channel possibly going away, or at least be dropped by some cable carriers.
Where the viewers stand…
I am going to miss the FOX Soccer coverage. In the five years since I upgraded to the digital tier to get the fixtures, I have been glued to the two FOX Soccer outlets, and the availability and promotion of the games have improved greatly since that time. FOX’s commitment has grown to the point that EPL scores now appear on the scroll during FOX’s college football and NFL telecasts (forcing me to turn away because I don’t want to know results – before watching the tape-delay showing).
Word is that during the 3 PM slate where the majority of games are played, NBC will not air a second match on another channel. NBC Sports Network intends on airing six games in all per weekend, and it is speculated that as many as 15-20 matches may appear on NBC itself.
It is also said that NBC does not intend on airing matches not shown live on tape delay later in the week, which will be a bummer. Unlike FOX Soccer, NBC has their other commitments (NHL, MLS, etc.). The remainder of the schedule that doesn’t make it onto NBCSN during a given week will be available either online or on the pay-per-view package. Am I envisioning a pricey soccer version of NFL Sunday Ticket or MLB Extra Innings?
What does sound good is that NBC intends on doing a lot of pre- and post-match programming, in addition to EPL-related programming, during the week – something that I think can be improved on now from Fox Soccer’s current offerings.
It should also be noted that ESPN will be out of the picture as well at the conclusion of the 2012-13 season. In the current contract FOX ‘sub-licenses’ approximately 1-2 games per week to ESPN. Those who watch ESPN notice that they do not promote their Premier League schedule much, as it is on the network’s backburner in comparison to NBA, College Football, Monday Night NFL, etc..
Those who currently watch the MLS offerings on NBCSN know of Arlo White, who has become the lead announcer for those telecasts. It is speculated that he will become the network’s top presenter on the EPL. I enjoy Arlo’s work but am also worried that he might become like Mike Emrick on NBC’s hockey presentations. Emrick is an excellent announcer, but too often goes out of his way to explain hockey nuances to his audience. Hopefully whoever NBC hires will not turn to attempting ‘Soccer for Dummies’ while calling games.
In fact, I hope NBC keeps the current feed and announcers from across the pond that FOX does now (complete with Kasabian’s ‘Fire’ theme music), and does not trot out fossil JP Dellacamera to call games. I will figure out the offsides calls and the strategy of the managers on when to use their substitutions on my own.
My feeling though is that NBC is going to step it up, especially with increased graphics, updates from other games, and also even sideline reporters. I’ve enjoyed the somewhat simple presentations coming from the England feed over the years, but that is going to change. We’ll see if it proves to be good or bad – but it will be something to get used to.
Sadly, at least for the 2013-14 season, you will not be hearing ESPN’s Ian Darke on the EPL, by far the best soccer presenter out there. Darke is with ESPN through the 2014 World Cup, maybe NBC can snatch him up after that.
Also Spanish-language feeds will be available through NBC’s Telemundo outlet.
What It Means to MLS
Another worry is that NBCSN’s current MLS coverage will now take a back seat. MLS has already taken a back seat in America.
NBCSN can use their EPL broadcasts to plug MLS, which ESPN actually now does currently. Also, MLS runs during a different time frame (March – November), so they will not be in competition during the summer months.
Hopefully EPL coming on board will promote and help, rather than hurt, the current MLS package. And for MLS, if they want run, the simple answer is to upgrade the current on-pitch product.
Visibility wise, this is great for both the EPL and the American soccer fan base.
It is also fantastic that BeIn Sports did not get the winning bid. BeIn is a start-up network owned by Qatar-based Al Jazeera, who have already aggressively snatched up U.S. rights to the domestic leagues of Italy, France, and Spain away from Fox and GOL TV. The problem with that is that there are currently not many U.S. cable/satellite outlets willing to carry that channel.
Germany’s Bundesliga remains on the GOL channel, which is also not aired on the majority of cable systems.
By going to the peacock, EPL football will be going to an outlet that is even more widely distributed than FOX Soccer, so there cannot be too many complaints there. And at least the contract is only for three years. I imagine there will be even more competition for the contract after that. It is good for EPL that they are not locked in long-term (8-10 year contract) commitment with a U.S. Network.
And the CBS Sports Network? All they are left with is some mid-major college sports, and Jim Rome. That channel remains a major non-player.
But with a contract triple of the now-expiring contract, one fact is perfectly clear: the golden age of televised soccer in the United States is indeed here.