In the fall of 1991, at age 17, Arlo White traveled from his home in England to visit an uncle and aunt on the South Side of Chicago. He was aching to watch soccer.
“I was flipping through what seemed like an endless amount of television channels,” NBC’s lead soccer voice recalled last week. “I was somewhere in the 300s and suddenly saw [Manchester United’s] Ryan Giggs thrashing in a volley. I was overjoyed that I managed to find this little snippet.”
Two decades later, neither White nor anyone else with a soccer itch in the United States will have any such trouble finding Premier League matches — or, for that matter, seeing Giggs, who this weekend entered his 24th season with Manchester United.
Once relegated to specialty channels or presented on tape delay at odd hours, English soccer is now more accessible than ever in the United States. After obtaining the rights to Premier League matches in a three-year, $250 million deal, NBC will utilize a variety of platforms to carry all 380 Premier League matches each season.
The network typically will show three matches live on Saturdays (two on NBC Sports Network, the network’s cable channel, and one on NBC), two on Sundays and one on Mondays (all on NBCSN) through the nine-month campaign. Coverage will also appear on three other properties: CNBC, Spanish-language Telemundo and mun2, a bilingual channel geared toward young viewers.
Games not available on standard outlets will appear on overflow channels at no charge to cable and satellite subscribers who receive NBCSN. (Many, but not all, systems are participating.) NBC Sports Live Extra, the network’s online streaming service, will provide coverage of every match for desktops, tablets and mobile devices.
“People in the United States have been begging and dying for this kind of coverage,” NBC coordinating producer Pierre Moossa said.
Ratings will tell whether that claim is true. One thing is certain: The Premier League, regarded as one of the most popular global sports brands, has never had an American stage like this before.
Last fall, in a surprising outcome, NBC outbid ESPN and Fox, which had held the property for three years at a cost of $80 million, for the rights to televise Premier League games. Fox showed most games on two boutique channels as well as an online pay service and licensed others to ESPN. NBCSN is available in twice as many households as Fox Soccer Channel, which, with the debut of Fox Sports 1 this month, is in the process of being dissolved.
Fox Sports 1 will carry the other powerhouse soccer property, the UEFA Champions League, while ESPN and NBC will continue to share Major League Soccer coverage. ESPN also has the 2014 World Cup rights.
In all, more than 150 Premier League matches will appear on NBCSN this season and another 20 on NBC — mainstream visibility for a sport restless to shed its niche reputation in the United States.
“I don’t think [soccer has] ever been this popular,” said White, who handled play-by-play for the Seattle Sounders of MLS for two years before moving to NBC’s MLS coverage in 2012. “Is it a tipping point? We’ll have to wait and see. I just know there is a huge amount of following of the game in the United States.”
That following has translated into strong ratings for high-profile competitions, such as the World Cup, Women’s World Cup and Champions League. The largest weekly U.S. audience is for the Mexican league, carried primarily by Univision’s family of Spanish-language channels.
NBC will attempt to hook viewers by chronicling the rhythms of a European season: the expectations surrounding glamour clubs Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City; the challenges facing traditional sides such as Liverpool and Arsenal; the battles to avoid relegation to the second-tier league; and the chase for Champions League slots.
More than 600 hours of studio shows and original programming will augment the match coverage.
Americans, “when they are traveling out of the U.S., see what this game is doing to the rest of the world,” studio host Rebecca Lowe said. “Perhaps they are starting to think they want a piece of that.”
NBC is promoting Premier League coverage as if it’s the NFL: New York subway trains wrapped in ads, splashy billboards in Manhattan and TV spots featuring comedic actor Jason Sudeikis as “Ted Lasso,” an American football coach hired to guide London’s Tottenham Hotspur. (“My job just got a lot easier: no ties or playoffs,” he says.)
Among NBC’s challenges is introducing the league to casual viewers without insulting sophisticated fans. Last week, the soccer community mocked NBC’s Premier League primer on Twitter that included, “No points are given for a loss.”
As for game-day production, the network is promising a straightforward approach.
“We just want to cover the sport the way it deserves to be covered,” Moossa said. “We have a very intelligent fan base here in the United States, so we’re not going to get into dumbing down the game as much as focusing on covering all aspects of the game — as you would in the U.K., as you would if it were any other sport. The fans are going to enjoy the game being treated properly.”