Are we better off today than we were four years ago?…
I am once again dabbling in a largely American-centered topic, but I think the overall message of this is applicable to everyone. So bear with me here.
It is time to talk about sports television. We need to discuss how football is covered.
Football as a sport has largely become more driven by television rights and television viewership as it has become a more globalized game. I myself, and I imagine most of the people who read this, are in a situation where we are only able to follow the clubs we support by watching the matches on TV. As television became more central to football fandom, TV companies stepped up production value and on-screen personalities became stars in their own right or, in many cases, were former players. And who controls those TV rights has become a hot button issue for fans on their couches and executives in their boardrooms alike.
And that is what motivated me to write this. The Premier League TV rights in America, which currently belong to the National Broadcasting Company (or NBC, for short), are coming up for tender very soon, with the current deal expiring at the end of this 2021/22 season. The Premier League recently announced that they would be opening the process up to bidding instead of signing an extension to their deal with NBC, which was a six-year deal worth up to $1 billion. While NBC are pursuing a new deal with the Premier League, some believe the favorites to land the much-valued TV rights are ESPN, the Disney-owned organization that is America’s most popular cable sports television network. I am here to discuss the whats and whos and whys of this issue, and this all connects back to the universal question of what we football fans are looking for in media coverage.
As a little bit of background, NBC acquired the rights to the Premier League in 2013, replacing Fox Sports and ESPN. Prior to NBC, the coverage of the league in America was not all that great, mainly because the demand was nowhere near what it is now. On Fox, the analysis was never all that good, very few games were broadcast live, and the ones that were almost exclusively involved the “Big Four” teams in the league at the time (Man United, Liverpool, Arsenal, and Chelsea). When NBC got the rights in 2013, they very clearly focused on the quality of the content and the amount of content they could provide. They focused heavily on the analysis, having pre-and-post-match shows that struck the balance between informative and entertaining. They hired quality on-air talent, led by former BBC presenter and studio host extraordinaire Rebecca Lowe. And, most importantly, they made every game in every Match Day available to watch either on live TV or online for anyone who could verify that NBC’s sporting channel, NBC Sports Network, was a part of their cable package. It did not matter if you supported Man United, Tottenham, Everton, or Burnely. If your team was in the Premier League and you got NBC Sports Network in your cable TV package (which most cable packages did), you could watch your team play live every single week. They gave people a level of access that fans in England did not even have, at least when it came to games on TV.
And I think it is worth pointing out that I believe this directly contributed to the massive growth of football’s popularity in America from the early 2010s to now. The sport was growing in popularity by the time the 2010 World Cup rolled around, but the growth of the Premier League’s American coverage under NBC certainly helped create the explosion of popularity that the sport is now experiencing in America. The Premier League is now the second-most popular football league in the United States (behind Mexico’s Liga MX), but, more wildly, Premier League and Euros/World Cup broadcasts in America create viewership numbers and ratings that can sometimes rival the lower end of America’s “four major sports” (American football, basketball, baseball, and hockey). I think it is safe to say now that football has overtaken hockey in popularity in this country, and I do not think we are far away from it overtaking baseball. That is insane to think about when you know what it was like even a decade ago, and I think the prime years of NBC’s Premier League coverage played a part in this.
NBC was the Gold Standard of football presentation in America from 2013 through probably to near the end of the decade. Not only did they give American fans access to quite literally every game at no extra charge, but the quality of the presentation was unmatched by anything else that any other American TV company was doing with football. The production value itself was top notch, their on-air talent was all superb, and they did an outstanding job at explaining the whats and whys of football. When they talked about teams and players and matches, they did a very good job at explaining the more complicated concepts that come up in a complicated sport like football in easier to understand ways. They approached their match coverage in a way that could help explain and teach the sport to an American fan that may have just become interested in it, while not appearing too much like a lecture and not losing any of the authenticity or substantive discussions that keep more experienced or knowledgable fans coming back. All of this was wrapped in a package that was high-energy without being pushy, entertaining without being too unserious, passionate about their work without being overbearing. And on top of all of that, NBC produced added content outside of the match day experience, which included several documentary/TV special type programs on a variety of topics, with my favorites being their “Promoted” series for the Premier League’s newly promoted members and their documentaries looking at historic moments, including one on Leicester City’s title win in 2016 and another on Manchester United’s treble-winning season in 1999. It was a dream scenario, maybe one that we as fans did not appreciate enough at the time.
And now things have changed. NBC’s product is still pretty good, and NBC’s parent company Comcast buying Sky a few years ago, leading to an incorporation and cooperation in production between NBC and Sky Sports for the Premier League, has added that little bit extra to match day production value. But the rest has quite clearly fallen off. Every match every week is no longer available at no additional charge, with the rest of the league games being put behind more substantial paywalls, first behind NBC Sports’ Gold package and now behind NBC’s overall Peacock streaming service. Many of the initial perks of NBC’s collaboration with Sky Sports, including the US fan’s access to Sky programming like Soccer Saturday and Goals on Sunday, eventually went away.
And most importantly, the analysis and programming became less informative and less interesting. The on-air talent is still pretty good. I think Rebecca Lowe is still a great studio host. They thankfully stopped employing and working with The Sun‘s former Chief Football Reporter Neil Ashton (Justice for the 96). But on the whole, it just was not as good. The analysis became less about the football and more about behind-the-scenes things, almost becoming like gossip at times. Has Mourinho lost the dressing room? Does Pogba/Özil even care any more? Is this player working hard enough? Is that manager facing the sack? It almost became too much of the low-hanging fruit. To be fair, the NBC Sports YouTube channel did have some of the substantive analysis that left the main television broadcasts, but the general trend was moving away from the informative substance that made NBC so good. Also, the overall trend of coverage began swaying more toward the now infamous “Big Six”. A significant amount of time on TV broadcasts, extra content, podcasts, and more became devoted to those six massive teams, and the rest of the league seemed to take a back seat. This was a far cry from the NBC of years ago which did a great job of catering to every fan. As an Everton fan, it became almost pointless for me to go to NBC for analysis of my team. I was better off looking for outside media. That is largely our aim on this blog, to talk about the teams and the stories that do not get their share of the limelight from the mainstream sports media because of the focus on the global elite.
NBC was still pretty good overall, but it was not what it once was. Ronald Reagan very famously asked during a Presidential Debate in 1980 whether the American people “were better off now than they were four years ago”, and that seems to be a fairly central question to this discussion, and I am not sure that the answer to that question is yes.
But are the alternatives any better? Well, not particularly. Fox is still the lowest rung of the ladder, in my mind, despite somehow being the American TV rights owner of the men’s and women’s World Cup. Production value is poor, on-air talent is poor, and the best talent and TV rights (aside from the World Cup) have left the station for other companies. ESPN, where I think the Premier League rights will end up, certainly leads the way for accessibility, with the Bundesliga, LaLiga, FA Cup, Eredivisie, and many other leagues behind a simple and fairly inexpensive paywall. They do employ some smart and quality on-air talent to discuss and commentate on the leagues, including Sid Lowe, Derek Rae, Archie Rhind-Tutt, Pablo Zabaleta, and Raphael Honigstein. But the overall production value is not as good as others, with audio and streaming issues sometimes plaguing broadcasts. Their headline football program, ESPNFC, is also quite drab and features some of the more irritating on-air talent that American coverage of the beautiful game has to offer.
CBS is the interesting one, though, the entity that I think gives NBC the greatest challenger when it comes to football coverage. CBS entered the game much later than the others, initially becoming the rights holders to the Champions League and Europa League in 2019 before later adding Serie A and the top flight leagues in Argentina and Brazil, alongside the National Women’s Soccer League in America, select US National Team games, and (very soon) Asian World Cup Qualifying and the AFC Champions League. Their production value is top notch, without any major streaming or audio issues (from the limited amount I watched). They also have very good on-air talent, including studio host maestro Kate Abdo alongside a variety of different people depending on the situation but including Micah Richards, Alex Scott, Fabrizio Romano, and a litany of at least pretty good commentators for the matches. They are, in many ways, what NBC used to be, that combination of informative and entertaining that brings in new people and clings on to returning fans. Is it perfect? Certainly not. Is it still very good? Absolutely. And all of this comes just for the price of admission for CBS’s streaming service Paramount+. While it is a paywall, I do not believe it requires a cable subscription to enjoy all games, which NBC does require in order to watch cable broadcasted games.
This is the mental predicament I approached this article with. As an American fan, should I be happy about the potential of the Premier League TV rights leaving ESPN? NBC still does a good job, but can we do better? Should we be getting better as fans? Are we truly better off now than we were four years ago?
And that leads me to the golden question of this blog: do we as fans around the world deserve better from TV broadcasters and from the media companies that we pay to provide us with football coverage? It is becoming more and more expensive to watch football these days, and in many ways it is becoming more and more restrictive. In America, you have to pay for three or four services just to watch your team. In Britain, you can pay for two different services and still may not be able to watch your team. It is a war for broadcasting rights and it seems that the fan is routinely the loser. Even when you can get the channels needed, it feels like more and more of mainstream coverage has lowered in quality and is more focused on those same handful of “big” clubs, the ones who are basically global brands at this point. I think there is a reason as to why more podcasts and blogs and other sites have been getting their share of listeners and readers, as fans now seek a source of coverage that is more high-quality and less hot take-y.
And I certainly think there is a balance there that can be hit. You can be entertaining, but you also owe the viewer informative coverage that is at least fair to all of the teams. You do not have to spend equal time on every team, but at least have something substantive to say about every team in the Premier League, for instance, instead of only six of them. You do not have to be a lecture on xG or xA or xT or x-whatever, but you can also say why things happened the way they did instead of resorting to the classic gossip-like storylines that dominate coverage of the Premier League.
This is where I am at, and it creates an impasse in my mind on the Premier League US TV Rights question. Can NBC be better? Certainly. Do I think ESPN is a better alternative? Probably not. But I am not sure there is a perfect dream scenario here. It is clear that across the board, we as football fans deserve a bit more from the media companies that we pay for football coverage, especially those of us who support “smaller” teams. There is a lot of good out there in the football media world, but there is a lot of bad and a lot of annoying too. As the Premier League TV rights go to tender, I remain slightly hopeful but not entirely optimistic. I still hope this growing competition for broadcasting rights would allow the cream to rise to the top, but it does not appear to be that way so far.
Or if it doesn’t, I suppose that is good news for blogs like us, right?
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