US networks cashing in on soccer’s younger, middle-class fanbase

Broadcasters like NBC investing in future as young audiences absorb worldwide leagues

Last week, NBC agreed to pay nearly $3 billion for the rights to show every single Premier League game live for the next six years. Photograph: Tim Clayton/Getty

Last week, NBC agreed to pay nearly $3 billion for the rights to show every single Premier League game live for the next six years. Photograph: Tim Clayton/Getty

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Way back in early 21st century America, live televised soccer was a hard-to-find commodity. Like tights and chocolate in second World War TWO London.

It was possible to source the contraband but you had to be willing to forage and sometimes it wasn’t where you were promised it was going to be.

One dismal Wednesday afternoon, ESPN switched out a Champions League knock-out match for a regular season college basketball game. No explanation given. None necessary. Just the natural hierarchy around these parts.

In a time of rationing that predated social media, there was one solitary hour of Premier League highlights on the schedule of another sports network on Sunday nights. Appointment television. Or it should have been except it too proved a moveable feast.

The definition of a major sport is largely about money. And, if soccer in this country wasn’t already here, it is now

Some weeks you’d sit 15 minutes past the hour it was supposed to start, waiting forlornly, suffering through tractor pulling or log rolling or some such atrocity, before finally coming to terms with the fact the goals were just not going to come. It was an era of long hot summers where major soccer tournaments were ghettoised on expensive pay-per-view. Like boxing matches or WWE nonsense.

That was then. Now is the winter of unbridled soccer content. Last week, NBC agreed to pay nearly $3 billion for the rights to show every single Premier League game live for the next six years.

Twice what they paid for the privilege back in 2016, the network had to outbid eight other suitors for the contract this time around. ESPN, CBS, Fox and the rest of the losing outfits will have to make do with offering dozens of games from Spain, Germany, France, Portugal, Turkey and Italy every weekend. Fans who once subsisted on bread and water now feast at the smorgasbord.

“For decades, men’s soccer has been about to arrive in the United States, ” wrote Andrew Marchand in the New York Post, usually the most jingoist tabloid in the country. “From Pele to the 1994 World Cup to the creation of MLS, it was always on the doorstep as a major sport on these shores.

“The definition of a major sport is largely about money. And, if soccer in this country wasn’t already here, it is now official with NBC/Comcast retaining the rights to England’s Premier League with a six-year extension for a whopping $2.76 billion . . . Its final number to retain the rights shows it. Soccer is a major sport.”

Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe have proven popular on NBC. Photograph: Getty
Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe have proven popular on NBC. Photograph: Getty

Of course, compared to the traditional American big four, the actual viewing numbers are still relatively minor league. Even the biggest games draw around a million pairs of eyes, less than a third of the audience garnered by a major college football match on a Saturday afternoon.

But, aside from putting eyeballs on screen at off-peak times like 7.30am on a weekend morning, NBC is investing in the future. If statistics show the average baseball fan is a 57-year-old geezer, the Premier League aficionado is between 15 and 30, wearing the shirt of a club from an English city he may never visit, and evincing far more interest in VAR than ERA (Earned Run Average).

Aside from shaking down these die-hards by forcing them to buy a monthly subscription for the Peacock streaming app, NBC has done a very fine job with the English league. For a crowd who produce the most cringe-inducingly awful Olympics coverage, they have done this sport justice.

Just by taking it seriously. Resisting the urge to patronise or pander, and thankfully sparing us hysterically gimmicky co-commentators, they also opted for solid, informed punditry from Robbie Mustoe and Robbie Earle (relative unknowns to American audiences when they started) rather than reheating the likes of Alexi Lalas and Eric Wynalda.

Puerile

CBS could learn a lot from their approach. Their Champions League coverage is puerile by comparison. Micah Richards thinks a contagious laugh and enthusiastic delivery masks his ignorance of non-English teams. It doesn’t. Especially when those watching him across America take in Bundesliga, La Liga and Serie A games on a regular basis. Jamie Carragher doesn’t cover himself in glory either in that studio, often appearing like a fella on a well-paid, less serious jolly from his more serious Sky duties. Sure, it’s the only Yanks watching.

Then again, this channel offers Golazo, a haphazard production that jumps from game to game as the action dictates. Tailored to the attention deficit generation, it throws up situations like the producer who once cut away from Messi dribbling towards the opposing box in order to show a corner in another match.

This video-game type guff runs on CBS’s dedicated sports channel because, as with NBC and ESPN, their investment in soccer is designed to strong arm fans into purchasing their streaming app, Paramount Plus, the only place to watch full Champions League matches for most of the season.

The increased availability of games then is underpinned by the realisation soccer has become big business here because it remains a largely middle-class sport. A suburban fanbase willing and capable of forking over hundreds of dollars on top of their normal cable bill just to access the best live fare from Europe is the stuff of advertisers’ dreams. The same easy marks who, before Covid struck, the biggest clubs were coming out here every summer to wring money out of in so many dreadful pre-season friendlies.

Still, the armchair fans have an embarrassment of televised riches. As long as they can afford them.

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