We’ve noted several times that Washington has been the top American market for English-language World Cup broadcasts this summer; the D.C. market had the third-highest rating for ESPN’s Belgium-U.S. match, and, continues to lead all markets with a 4.5 average rating for World Cup broadcasts on ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC.
That might have been unexpected news to some. Not to Jon Miller, the president of programming for NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network. Now, the World Cup is obviously not an NBC property. But the Premier League sure is. And Miller — who led NBC’s negotiations that led to the $250 million Premier League deal, and who also happens to be a Montgomery County native who started his career at WRC — is well aware of how Washington performed during the latest EPL season.
“Washington is at the top of our list every week,” Miller said this week. “I think it’s a unique market, in that it’s a very upscale, highly educated, highly developed sports market. It’s also got so much of an international influx of people from around the world, and soccer is the world’s game….I think it’s a great market, a great town.”
(The list of top markets for Premier League broadcasts on NBC and NBCSN also includes Baltimore at No. 3, Richmond at No. 6 and Norfolk at No. 8.)
Miller, as it turns out, is in town this week for the 40th reunion of his graduating class at Bethesda’s Whitman High. He played tennis at Whitman, and never actually played organized soccer as a kid.
But like many suburban kids of his generation, he grew up immersed in D.C. sports and in D.C. sports media: he read Bill Gildea and Shirley Povich in The Post, watched Warner Wolf and Maury Povich on local airwaves, listened to Johnny Holliday on the radio, worked as a ballboy at the Washington Star International tennis tournament, went to countless Redskins games using the family tickets, and ran onto the RFK Stadium field with his little brother at the Senators’ final game in 1971, where they were apprehended by security.
“Here I am responsible for my little brother, and the next thing I know I’m gonna call my parents from a pay phone letting them know we’re in some trouble here,” he laughed.
Like so many others, Miller also crossed paths with George Michael at WRC. Miller began working as an account executive at WRC in the late 1970s; at the time, he and several friends were getting into the prescursors of fantasy baseball, which made them desperate for nightly scores. They would call “King Wally” on New York’s “Sports Phone,” and they wondered why no Washington equivalent existed.
WRC considered starting their own line, but wasn’t able to sell advertising over telephone lines. So in 1980, the station started a 15-minute “Sports Final” show on Sunday nights, hosted by Michael, and sold advertising against that program to fund a scores hotline with a bank of several dozen phone lines. The bank grew to 100 phone lines, Sports Final expanded to 30 minutes and eventually became the groundbreaking Sports Machine, and Miller moved on to New York, where he eventually became a VP of program planning and development, and then the executive vice president of NBC Sports.
In addition to leading the Premier League acquisition, Miller was the co-creator of the NHL’s Winter Classic, the annual New Year’s Day spectacle that will arrive in Washington next winter. (He also negotiated NBC’s French Open deal with Donald Dell, the Washington tennis legend who was once Miller’s boss at the D.C. tournament, and is responsible for around 9,000 hours of yearly programming.) And he travels incessantly for work; during one week in June he was in Los Angeles for the Stanley Cup Finals, New York for the Belmont Stakes, Montreal for Formula One’s Canadian Grand Prix, and then back in New York for more NHL action.
Still, even though he’s moved on from Washington fandom after spending most of his life in the New York area, Miller has plenty of ties to D.C. His brother still has the family’s Redskins tickets, he has cousins and friends throughout the area, and he still follows WRC and former co-workers like Jim Vance. Plus, Washington delivered the biggest affirmation of his Premier League experiment, which NBC considers a first-year success.
“There were a lot of people who thought it was crazy, who looked at us like we didn’t know what we were doing,” Miller said. “But I felt in my gut — and we had some pretty strong research to back it up — that if you programmed it the right way and produced it the right way, people would come to it.”