For fans of the Barclay’s Premier League watching matches from the US, it has been difficult to feel connected to the real time happenings across the Atlantic. Fox Soccer Channel had the rights to broadcast BPL matches for several years, but cable and satellite providers put that network in a separate pricing tier, requiring additional monthly fees from subscribers to be able to watch. Now, NBC Sports Network, part of the basic channel lineup, has secured the broadcast rights for the BPL and is showing all the matches live. When the season starts as unpredictably as this one has, it’s a pretty big deal for those who actually understand the Offside rule. Meanwhile Fox Soccer Channel has morphed into FXX and is focusing on acquiring syndicated programming.
To be fair, soccer is a pretty difficult commodity for any US network to take on. With the exception of half time, there are no natural breaks in the game that allow for advertisers to hawk their relevant wares in the way there are during MLB, NFL or NBA games, which often means a net loss for broadcasters. But in fact, NBC Sports Network’s overhead is relatively low. The network itself is not actually producing the games they broadcast (they are only paying the broadcast licensing fees) and their analysis anchors (all British) are based in Stamford, CT.
So far, the network’s three-year deal with the Premier League has been win-win. Average ratings for Premier League matches have been 70% better than those of Fox Soccer. This success has carried over to the MLS games, which NBC Sports Network also carries, boosting the average MLS ratings some 60%. “[NBC Sports] have made the Premier League feel special and important” soccer executive John Guppy told the New York Times.
As of week seven, it hasn’t been a very special season for inveterate champions Manchester United, who fell last week in a monumental upset against the lesser West Bromwich Albion. The loss left them in 12th place, and off to their worst start to a season in more than 20 years. Saturday’s match looked to be another giant killing when the still winless and last place Sunderland led 1-0 at half time on a Gardner goal struck within the first five minutes. But thanks to the confident foot of Belgian wunderkind Adnan Januzaj, who sent the ball to the back of the net twice in his first ever Premier League start, United were able to take home their three points and make it back into the top half of the rankings. They are currently in 9th position.
It’s easy to blame Man U’s deflated presence on the departure of manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who ran the team longer than some of United’s players have even been alive. A transitional period is natural during such a major change to the status quo; but replacement David Moyes is no rookie, having spent the last decade with Everton and never letting them get relegated during his tenure. There are other factors though, namely that more than half of United’s starters are over 30. Sturdy defensive-anchor Rio Ferdinand is 35, and Ryan Giggs, a playmaking fixture of Man U’s midfield since 1992, will be 40 next month. To the average punter that’s nowhere near old age, but for an athlete in a contact sport, 35 is getting on in years and 40 is about as long in the tooth as it gets. More importantly, it’s difficult to tell who is poised to take up the mantles of the soon to be retiring players. Januzaj has made a memorable debut, but at 18 he doesn’t yet have the stamina to finish the game on the pitch.
For some fans of the Premier League – particularly Americans, who tend to root for the underdog – it’s kind of exciting to see the long-dominant Manchester United in a mid-ranked position and uncertain of the club’s future standings for the season. It’s also kind of nice to see clubs like Hull, West Brom and Cardiff City, which are frequently relegated, doing relatively well so far. But it’s still very early in the season and we have until the end of May 2014 to see how everything will finally shake out. Whatever happens NBC Sports Network will be there to cover it.
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