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What does NBC's ambitious plan for the English Premier League mean for Major League Soccer?

The English Premier League is more popular in the United States than Major League Soccer, the United States' own league. There, I said it.

What does NBC's ambitious plan for the English Premier League mean for Major League Soccer?

When MLS and NBC first got together, it was a big enough deal that they held a press conference together before a U.S. national team game at Lincoln Financial Field. (Jonathan Tannenwald/Philly.com file photo)
When MLS and NBC first got together, it was a big enough deal that they held a press conference together before a U.S. national team game at Lincoln Financial Field. (Jonathan Tannenwald/Philly.com file photo)

The English Premier League is more popular in the United States than Major League Soccer, the United States' own league.

There, I said it.

You should say it too. Out loud, if you aren't somewhere that it will distract people around you.

Now, with that out of the way...

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I care a lot more about Major League Soccer than the English Premier League.

There, I said that too.

If you are of the same opinion, follow the same steps as before. Or don't.

I acknowledge that I am in the minority. If I wanted nothing but pageviews, I could troll for traffic by writing SEO-friendly stuff about Manchester United and Chelsea and Arsenal instead of the Philadelphia Union and the Montréal Impact and the Portland Timbers.

There, I said tha... okay, now I might get myself in trouble. I'll stop.

You get the point, though.

It's borne out in website traffic, it's borne out in restaurant tabs, it's borne out in merchandise sales.

Above all, it's borne out in television rights fees. MLS gets something like $20 million combined each season from ESPN, NBC and Univision. The Premier League will get over $83 million a year from NBC during its three-season deal.

I can't fight that. You can't fight that. MLS headquarters can't fight it, at least not right now. We can debate whether it should. The league could raise the cap a lot and spend more money on big-time players in the hope that it will get more TV money in the future...

... but ...

... what if they do that and the ratings don't come, and then the TV revenue doesn't come?

There's no guaranteed cause-and-effect relationship between spending money and increasing TV ratings. David Beckham helped, of course. Thierry Henry helped some too. But Cuauhtémoc Blanco didn't, and Omar Bravo didn't, and Luis Hernandez and Lothar Matthäus and Youri Djorkaeff way back when didn't.

Everybody knows at this point that the big money that MLS needs to become one of the world's top leagues is not going to come from the pockets of the league's owners. It's going to come from a television broadcaster.

The question is when. The answer, though...

Anybody?

That's what I thought.

So there I sat in the swanky "Football Night In America" studios at 30 Rock on Tuesday, watching NBC and the Premier League sing each other's praises. I watched NBC executives and on-air talent unveil the scale of what the network has planned for its Premier League coverage: every game live on TV and free online, and hours upon hours of ancillary programming during the rest of the week.

Heck, they're bringing their own version of "Match Of The Day" over to the United States. That's awesome. I mean that, it's really great. I'll watch it every week and I'll enjoy it.

If you don't know what MOTD is, watch this or this or this or this. It's a big deal in England, and it should be here too.

But the number one question I got on Twitter on Tuesday was how NBC's EPL deal will affect MLS.

Or, as Jason Davis put it on the North American Soccer Network's wonderful "American Soccer Morning" show:

Where is our "Match of the Day" for MLS?

It's not just some whiny complaint. It's a serious question, and it needs to be asked.

Because we don't have it.

And with all due respect to Jason and many others, we probably aren't going to have it.

But we are going to have a very big thing happen in a few months that is going to have a very big effect on MLS' future.

As I've reported before, MLS will begin negotiations over its next round of television contracts this summer. The current deals with NBC, ESPN and Univision expire after the 2014 season.

NBC has brought a lot to MLS, and MLS was a significant player in helping get the then-nascent NBC Sports Network off the ground. But until all the deals are official, there's no certainty that NBC will continue its relationship with MLS.

(Nor, by the way, is it certain that ESPN and Univision will continue with MLS. If NBC stays, it would make sense for Telemundo - which is also owned by Comcast - to try to get a Spanish-language package.)

Then there's the matter of how MLS rights are affected by U.S. national team rights, and those dovetail with World Cup rights. ESPN and Univision will lose the World Cup and all other FIFA competitions after the 2014 World Cup, to Fox and Telemundo respectively. The earliest either outlet can get a new contract for FIFA competitions is after the 2022 World Cup. That's for another blog post, though.)

It would make a lot of sense for MLS and NBC to re-up. But it's simply a question of certainty, and right now that doesn't exist.

I put the question directly to Jon Miller, NBC Sports' president of programming, on Tuesday. Does NBC want to re-up with MLS?

"We're very happy with our relationship [and] we hope to continue it," he said. "We think that the Premier League relationship will help with our MLS viewers and ratings, and give us another promotional opportunity. We'll be looking forward to talking to them when they are ready to sit down."

I've talked with Miller enough times to sincerely believe him.

But we also know that last time around, MLS turned down a more lucrative deal from Fox Soccer Channel to get NBC's wider exposure. When Fox Sports 1 launches later this year, it will have the exposure. If Fox comes back with more money again this time, will MLS take it?

What if Fox offers to have that highlight show?

I still remember watching MLS 2Night on ESPN2. It's been gone for a really, really long time though. It's been gone for so many years that NASN launched a Saturday radio show called MLS Tonight this year, and almost no one batted an eye about it.

(Yes, the show's archive page doesn't have the most recent episodes. It's just to point out that the show exists.)

So, back to Tuesday. I came to NBC's event armed with one big question that I wanted to ask. It was open-ended, and I wanted to see where the various executives on stage would go with it.

The question went like this. I asked it to Premier League CEO Richard Scudamore, NBC Sports president of programming Jon Miller and NBC Sports Group Chairman Mark Lazarus:

To Mr. Scudamore: The Premier League is more popular in many countries than those respective countries' domestic leagues. Those numbers have borne out pretty clearly that it's the case in the United States too. What has it taken for the Premier League to achieve that status? Has it been easy, or has it been hard, and what kind of time commitment has been required?

And then to either Mr. Miller or Mr. Lazarus, what do you think it will take for the Premier League to maintain that status as the sport of soccer grows as a whole across this country?

Scudamore answered as follows:

There's a short answer and a long answer. I don't believe it's a zero-sum game. I think the world of football has become bigger. I think history shows, and will show that where we've been, and grown, football interest has grown.

I think it's culturally quite difficult. Take China. You don't go to China and have 1.3 billion people who decide whether they are going to support football or cricket or rugby.

Culturally, people in China – their parents want them to be musicians and scientists and do many other things. There isn't a sporting culture like there is, say, in this country.

We are a part of a big democratization, where we are bringing sport to the world. There's a pervasiveness about sport now as it goes throughout the world. We're doing this by making sure we put on the best possible football competition we can.

Whether you're the Masters down at Augusta over the weekend – in a global environment, people gravitate towards the best of what they can see, because it's all available all over the world.

Then what happens is that football interest grows, football participation grows, and then it will grow at the professional level. I'm hugely optimistic about the ability of football locally, in every country of the world, to grow and develop their own professional leagues.

If in five, 10, 15 or 20 years' time, the local league or the indigenous leagues come racing past us, that's okay. We can live with that, because the sport will have grown.

In many countries, we're not number one. The Germans have got their own, the French have got their own, the Spanish have got their own. It's not a problem. Therefore, as long as the whole industry is growing, everybody wins. We don't have to be number one – but it is nice sometimes when you are.

Miller answered next:

We know we'll have great production, great promotion behind it, and consistent windows. People will know where to come find it – that kind of consistency helps to build a repetitive pattern. We'll put all these different assets behind it and we'll tell people that it's important, and we'll show that it's important.

By doing that, we convey a message to sports fans and viewers everywhere. Plus, by using other resources, we'll start to bring in casual fans. I think we'll get the dedicated Premier League fan, but I think we'll introduce the sport to a lot of new people who haven't had a chance to experience it.

Lazarus then added:

And obviously, we are already partners with the local league here, with MLS. We think that a larger circulation of avid football - soccer - fans will be good for both properties as they come to our air.

You will probably notice a lot of things from those responses. You might notice, as I did, that MLS was not referred to by name until the very end.

Does NBC care about MLS relative to the Premier League? I think so. But it's not their job to "care." It's their job to make money from putting sports on television. If MLS does that for NBC, good. If not, maybe you don't put $10 million on the table per year next time.

That's how much MLS is getting from NBC right now. It was big news when the deal was announced at Lincoln Financial Field in 2011.

It's still a big deal today.

I went to get Arlo White's opinion. He cares, as we know. He can't tell the people with the big money what to do, but he's important nonetheless.

It wasn't the first time I asked White to compare MLS and the EPL. That was back in 2010, when he first came to PPL Park with the Seattle Sounders.

In other words: this question isn't new. And it probably isn't going away for a while.

So what's the answer now?

"I can't see anything other than it being positive for Major League Soccer," he said. "The property will be treated with the exact same respect as it was before."

White also said something that none of his other colleagues said. But it might be the most important thing that was said on the matter.

Just look at the logistics: the time slots for the games don't get in the way of Major League Soccer. So for me to have that lead in - you saw from the European Championships last year, there was a Seattle-Portland game on ESPN after England-Italy, and it had 800,000 people watching.

The exact number was 880,000. It was the second-highest viewership total for MLS in ESPN's history.

Yes, it was the league's signature rivalry, and yes, the England-Italy game went to penalty kicks, so it bumped into the MLS timeslot. But the number came from Nielsen, and they don't fudge that stuff.

White sees that crossover potential as being big for MLS' future.

"Hopefully we can get that soccer viewer to watch a few more MLS games," he said. "And what this will do for NBC Sports - we become more of a soccer broadcaster, a one-stop shop. The Premier League is going to enhance that - I don't think there's anything for MLS fans to be afraid of at all."

The only thing we have to fear is... no, it doesn't really work in this context. The fear of the big money that the EPL is generating in the United States is legitimate.

(And that's before we get into how big Mexican soccer has become. We'll go down that road some other time.)

MLS still has two things going for it that no other league can claim when it comes to influence in America. The first is that there's nothing like watching a soccer game in person. The second is that there's no equivalent to the bond a fan forms with a city in which he or she has genuine roots.

That's why the Union have been such a success for MLS. PPL Park has one of the nation's best atmospheres, and the bond that Philadelphia fans have with their team is unrivaled by any city in the country.

Plenty of Union fans root for teams in other countries too. But on game days, they're all at PPL Park.

You can't go from Philadelphia to Old Trafford or Anfield or Stamford Bridge every weekend. You just can't.

So what's the conclusion in all of this?

Personally, I want to believe that a path of sustainable growth is the best one for MLS to follow. It may be slow, and it may not be lucrative, and it may mean that MLS teams keep losing to Mexican teams in the CONCACAF Champions League...

(There I go, after saying I'd save it for another time.)

I hope we don't spend the next three years debating this. But I suspect we will, because it's what we do.

So have at it. I can't stop you. MLS can't stop you, at least until we know whether the league will get more money from the next round of TV deals.

You can only stop yourselves.

About this blog
The Goalkeeper is your home for the latest news about the Philadelphia Union, Major League Soccer, U.S. national teams and the rest of the world's most popular sport. It's also a place for fans to gather and celebrate the culture of soccer and its unique place on the sports landscape.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
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