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“It's football. Just not as we know it.”
That’s how NBC is selling its latest sports offering – English Premier League soccer, whose season kicks off Saturday morning at 7 a.m. (EST) when Stoke City visit Liverpool’s legendary Anfield Road for the opening game. The network paid $250 million for three years’ broadcast rights to the world’s most watched sports league – a three-fold increase over what Fox Soccer Channel had previously paid – a bet that reflects assumptions about a changing American sports market.
The fact that soccer – known as “football” everywhere else in the world – is not entirely mainstream despite its increasing popularity in the U.S. is not lost on NBC, judging from its promotional efforts.
A TV commercial promoting the new franchise features Saturday Night Live alumnus Jason Sudeikis, cast as an NFL coach handed the job of managing Tottenham Hotspur in North London.
“If you tried to end a game in a tie in the United States… Heck, that might be listed in Revelations as the cause for the apocalypse,” his character says upon learning that games can end undecided. That’s an acknowledgment that for many Americans, soccer remains somewhat exotic.
It’s the “rest of the world exporting its culture to America,” Stefan Szymanski, co-author of “Soccernomics”, told Al Jazeera, noting that this was an inversion of the cultural import-export relationship of the U.S. with the wider world.
Still, there’s no denying its growing popularity on these shores.
According to Richard Luker, a social scientist who has been tracking sports polling in the U.S. for ESPN for the better parts of two decades, while soccer is still less popular than baseball, hockey and football across the general population, it is the second most popular sport among Americans aged 12 to 24.
“Kids growing up today gain cachet and social currency by knowing about the sport,” he told ESPN in interview late last year. “It is only a matter of time 'til we see soccer take off in a big way."
Soccer had its U.S. coming out party in the 1990s, a decade that saw the country host the 1994 World Cup and the birth of Major League Soccer (MLS), the most competitive U.S. soccer league of its kind to date.
But a combination of changing national attitudes about the sport, coupled with the success of American players in foreign leagues and the physical presence of foreign players and teams in the U.S., have built upon the initial success in the intervening period. The English Premier League (EPL) this season will feature such familiar Team USA stars as Sunderland’s Jozy Altidore, Everton’s Tim Howard, Aston Villa’s Brad Guzan and Stoke’s Geoff Cameron. Liverpool is owned by the Fenway Sports Group, which also owns the Boston Red Sox, while Manchester United, Aston Villa, Sunderland, Fulham and Arsenal (partly) are also owned by Americans.
Szymanski notes the global appeal of the EPL, which generates half of its revenue from abroad, and predicts that its appeal will grow in the United States. “The EPL looks like NFL global,” he said, using the domestic success of America’s most lucrative sports league as an analogy for the soccer league’s international dominance.
NBC hopes to expand on Fox’s previous EPL footprint, offering more games on more channels. In a conference call, NBC officials in charge of programming for the company’s soccer push were confident both about the new coverage plan and the receptivity of the U.S. market.
“I think the league and the product speak for itself”, said Pierre Moossa, NBC Sports Group’s coordinating producer of the EPL coverage. Or, as Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports, told the New York Times of the Premier League: “It’s a blue-chip property that has not been exploited in the way that we will take advantage of it.”
In placing a massive billboard of EPL mega-star Gareth Bale in Times Square in New York as part of its promotional push for the upcoming coverage, NBC hopes to continue the popularity that foreign soccer players like David Beckham, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo increasingly have in the American landscape alongside homegrown stars in other sports like Peyton Manning and Lebron James (who, incidentally, has a part-stake in Liverpool).
“We have a very intelligent fan base here in the United States,” said Moossa, “so we’re not going to get into dumbing down the game or changing to different demographics as much as just focusing on covering all aspects of the game.”
But as Szymanski said, that in itself is a demographic and cultural bet: “NBC is betting on kids,” Szymanski said - betting that a new generation of Americans will speak a more global language when it comes to sports.
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