The American soccer community has been buzzing since the news came out late Sunday that NBC has won broadcast rights to the English Premier League from 2013 through 2016.
As soon as the story broke, all manner of questions arose on Twitter and elsewhere about just what that would mean for fans, as well as for the sincere respect Major League Soccer has earned from NBC.
Well, here may be answers to quite a few of those questions. I spoke at length Monday afternoon with Jon Miller, the president of programming for NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network.
Let's start with some background as to how things got to where they are now. Miller told me that although NBC's bid for Premier League broadcast rights was not officially accepted until this past Friday, the network's interest in the property is not a new thing.
"The Premier League is something we have watched for a long time, and it was not available to us," Miller told me. "Even before the Comcast-NBC merger [which was completed last year], we saw the passion of fans, the affluent audience, the demographics of young men that are so hard to find."
The ability to reach a younger audience has a personal connection for Miller.
"I have a 23-year-old and a 27-year-old son, [and] I have a lot of friends who have sons and daughters of the same age – they have all become Chelsea fans, Arsenal fans, Manchester United fans, Tottenham fans," Miller said. "Even though there's just a handful of Americans playing on those teams, they are appealing."
When the Comcast-NBC merger process finished, it did not take long for the new company's interest in Premier League rights to become serious.
"When we were just NBC, we didn't have the platforms to exploit a property like the Premier League," Miller said. "Once we took Versus in January and converted it to the NBC Sports Network, we got a lot more aggressive about our programming. At the top of the list with a big bulls-eye was the Premier League."
Miller added that "we all understand the value of this property … If you're going to grow the game in this country, you have to go with the best of the best."
He acknowledged that NBC has "a relatively light history up to now with soccer." But things have changed quickly at 30 Rock, the Peacock network's famed Manhattan headquarters.
First came a three-year, $30 million deal with Major League Soccer and the U.S. Soccer Federation that took effect in March. The deal was signed in August of 2011 and announced at Lincoln Financial Field before a U.S. men's national team game.
Two months later, Telemundo - which is owned by NBC Universal - paid $600 million for Spanish-language broadcast rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, the 2015 and 2019 Women's World Cups, and other FIFA tournaments.
Most recently, NBC put a lot of resources into enhancing the quality of its Olympic soccer broadcasts this past summer. That gave the U.S. women's national team's thrilling run to the gold medal an even bigger spotlight.
It was during the Olympics that the Premier League deal started to materialize – and it certainly helped that the Games took place in London.
"We spent a lot of time with [the Premier League] at the Olympics, and got ourselves in a position where when the opportunity came, we made the move," Miller said. "The invitation to tender [a bid for broadcast rights] came out in September, and we worked very hard and quickly to get ourselves into the process."
Miller mentioned that NBC used the wide distribution of its many channels as a selling point. That included its over-the-air network, which is as widely-distributed as you can get.
(I pause here to note that you can't watch English Premier League games live on over-the-air television in England. They're all on cable, with an extended highlights show on the BBC on Saturday and Sunday nights.)
That prompted me to ask whether NBC specifically used its distribution as an argument against the Premier League awarding rights to beIN Sport.
As you all know by now, beIN Sport is operated by al-Jazeera, which is owned by the state of Qatar. The network has a seemingly infinite amount of money to spend, as it fuelled (pardon the pun) by money derived from that nation's oil and gas resources.
Miller called beIN Sport "a mystery," and said he did not know much about its bid for Premier League rights.
"I knew that they aggressively were interested in the Premier League in the United States as well as other parts of the world," Miller said. "I do know that we very much wanted to be with the Premier League, and we showed them a plan that would help grow and take their game to a new level."
That plan included a fair amount of emphasis on NBC's broad reach.
Miller told me that the Premier League representatives with whom he spoke "understand how a property can be hamstrung if it doesn't have distribution."
"If people can't see it and someone is warehousing the product, it doesn't do any good for the league or that property," Miller said. "While beIN has money to spend, they are not easily accessible. We offered a very attractive alternative."
Interpret that as you like, especially if you're a fan of the Spanish, French or Italian leagues – or if you're a fan of the U.S. national team who hasn't been able to watch road World Cup qualifiers this year.
I mentioned to Miller that what he said brought back memories of NBC's deal with MLS last year. It was widely reported that MLS turned down more money from Fox to get NBC's wider distribution.
But in the end, Miller said, all that mattered was the money. It was always going to be the case that the highest bidder would win.
"The Premier League has very strict guidelines and rules, and it was clear that the highest bid value wins the property," Miller said. "So while distribution is important, there are 20 club owners and they run a true democracy over there."
Now that the deal is done, NBC has turned its focus to how it will present Premier League games and ancillary programming to the masses.
As the Associated Press reported Sunday, NBC plans to air six games per weekend across its television stations. The current plan is to show up to three games on Saturday, two on Sunday and one on Monday afternoon, plus midweek games when they come along.
Miller confirmed what NBC chairman Mark Lazarus told Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch on Sunday: that approximately 18 to 20 games will be shown on NBC's over-the-air network. Miller also said that "the bulk of" the games will be on the NBC Sports Network.
NBC has not yet determined how it will distribute games not televised on a given matchday. Miller would only say that "there will be a package that will be put out there so that Premier League fans will be able to see those games," and "nothing will be on tape."
Miller said his expectation is that the Premier League will be as accessible to fans as this past summer's Olympics were. With the notable exception of the Opening Ceremonies, NBC streamed every event in every sport live online, whether or not it aired live on television.
As I listened to Miller, I could tell that criticism of NBC's tape-delaying Olympics coverage still rings in the ears of those at 30 Rock. But he also made a direct reference to Fox showing some tape-delayed Premier League broadcasts on its over-the air network after NFL games.
"Fans who've enjoyed the games on Fox and ESPN and some taped games on Fox (over the air) have had to struggle to find out where games were," Miller said. "They're not going to have that problem once August of 2013 comes around."
There will also be supplementary programming, and not just in the form of NBC-produced pregame and postgame shows. Miller said NBC hopes to do a "Premier League 36" behind-the-scenes series, as it has done with the National Hockey League and Major League Soccer.
I noted to Miller that the culture of access to players in English soccer is not the same as it is in American sports, especially at England's bigger clubs. Miller acknowledged that hurdle, but said he expects to find ways to jump over it.
"There are certain people over there with Premier League teams who are familiar with what we've done in the United States who would love to participate in something like that," Miller said. "Some teams may not give you access but others will see the advantage to grow their brands and their stars."
Now for the issue that I know has been on many of your minds: how NBC will treat the Premier League in relation to Major League Soccer. I raised the point with Miller that many MLS fans are worried that if the EPL is presented as a superior product, fans who tune into EPL games will thus view MLS as inferior.
I never got a quote that would be bulletin board material for those concerned about MLS becoming a second-class citizen in NBC's empire. What I did get was multiple statements from Miller that NBC intends to package the EPL and MLS together, and that doing so will help MLS.
"This is good for MLS because it makes the sport more important to us," Miller said. We'll be able to promote on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays when we're doing Premier League games [that] coming up later today or tonight [is] Major League Soccer."
ESPN has done that during its Premier League broadcasts too. There's no direct evidence yet of what effect it has had, but it's worth noting that ESPN's highest-rated MLS broadcast this year (and its highest-rated in quite a few seasons) came as the second half of a doubleheader with a Euro 2012 game.
Miller noted that NBC's emphasis on presenting certain non-major sports in great depth has grown interest in those sports. He specifically pointed to Olympic programming outside of the Games, cycling and horse racing.
It now becomes more important for us in terms of how we position the sport and how we serve the fans.
"We've put digital assets in play, cable assets in play and shoulder programming in play to help grow those sports and make those sports more popular," Miller said. "We will do the same thing with the Premier League, and MLS will be the beneficiary of that."
I finished the interview by asking Miller whether there will be any crossover in on-air talent between Premier League and MLS broadcasts.
Miller answered that NBC doesn't know yet, but he knows it's a big issue for fans.
"Talent is a big thing here [at NBC], and we know that Premier League fans are among the most well-educated, well-informed fans out there," Miller said. "So you've go tot put good talent on the broadcasts. We think it's important to have indigenous voices and people who know the Premier League, and we plan to exploit that."
We won't know for certain just how this will all work out – including its effect on Major League Soccer – until next August. But it does seem that NBC views its Premier League deal as a big thing, and plans to treat its broadcasts accordingly.