I'm talking to Jon Miller about the moment he began to realize that the globalization of soccer had crossed his own doorstep:
I now have a 23-year-old son, who from the time he was 17, 18, when I would be getting up on a Saturday or Sunday morning to play golf, he would come trudging down the stairs at 7am wrapped in a blanket, with a hat pulled down over his eyes and sit on the couch, and I would say "What are you doing?" And he would say "Manchester United is on" or "Arsenal is on", and I was amazed. To try and get a teenage kid out of bed to do anything is always a challenge. But the fact that he'd be up and he would park himself to watch these games and have his friends come over and do the same thing, was obviously eye-opening.
Miller is President of Programming for NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network, and he led the network's acquisition of the US broadcast and digital rights to the English Premier League. NBC landed the rights last October, following a two-year process that started with a Premier League delegation talking to interested parties at a series of meetings in New York. Those conversations included the incumbent rights holders, Fox Soccer, ESPN and the upstart, Al Jazeera-owned beIN network, who would have loved to add the Premier League to their recent scoops of La Liga, Serie A and Ligue 1.
After the initial contact in New York, NBC expressed interest. Miller and his team then "continued to make ourselves smarter; continued to do our own research on the property and how it would be received and what we could do differently to showcase it. Clearly the sport of soccer is growing exponentially in this country, and you can argue that soccer is the biggest sport in the world, and in our mind the Premier League is the biggest league in that sport. We jumped at the chance."
As the team worked on a bid last summer, Miller traveled to London as part of a 2,700-strong NBC Olympic staff. He confirmed that the NBC team took the opportunity to have further discussions with the Premier League, prior to the final bid process a few months later.
It must have been an interesting moment – NBC's Olympic coverage met with a mixed reception, mainly owing to the decision to repeatedly tape-delay by up to six hours, in order to meet prime time at home. NBC could point to the tactic being a success in terms of increased audience and exceeded revenue targets, but privately some of the criticism about the broadcaster misreading and even alienating a tech-savvy audience (for whom participating in the live Twitter feed, for example, was an increasing part of the viewing experience), seemed to take the network aback, particularly when it had invested so much into its web platform as part of its coverage.
There was no denying, however, the scale of the technical logistics NBC brought to the Olympics, both on TV and online. This may have been the moment when a bid began to look truly appetizing to the Premier League. Of course, cynics might say that the reported $80m to $85m per year NBC is paying for the rights to show up to 380 games can't have hurt either – but the Premier League and its leading sides are ever more aware of the increasingly lucrative American market, and would have looked very carefully at what network could give them the exposure they wanted. Having the generals of a visiting broadcast army on their doorstep as the decision neared might have helped too.
NBC and MLS
Given NBC's decision to delay some of its Olympic broadcasts, it is perhaps ironic to note that one of the embarrassment of riches currently available to US viewers of Premier League games is not available to English viewers – the ability to watch, live, games that kick off at 3pm on a Saturday (GMT). This is the traditional kick-off time for the league and it is protected by Football Association restrictions on UK broadcasters, though this protection has been steadily circumvented by Sunday and Monday night kick-offs, not to mention noon and evening Saturday kick-offs, to accommodate domestic broadcast partners.
Tellingly, when Mark Lazarus, chairman of the NBC Sports Group, first discussed the deal for Premier League rights he was keen to emphasize that "there will be live, exclusive games, and we're not going to tape delay any of them". Beyond that, Miller has a track record of not resting on his laurels when it comes to broadcast innovation. As well as securing the Premier League rights, he has acquired the rights to Formula One and ushered in the NHL Winter Classic; he also presided over a period in which the NBC producer Sam Flood introduced the Inside the Glass convention to ice hockey – reporting direct from team benches during games. Miller says:
Everybody, the NHL, international broadcasters, told us we were crazy, it would never work – and now it's become a staple of the sport.
Miller is cautious about revealing too much in advance about what the Premier League coverage will entail, but a glance at the network's MLS coverage, which started last season and which reached a new peak of intensity with last Saturday's 10-hour Rivalry Week broadcast, might give some clues. For one thing, there has been the innovation of ex-player and color commentator Kyle Martino operating at field level between the two teams' technical zones, in an adaptation of the Inside the Glass convention. There is also Martino's partnership with lead announcer Arlo White, a former BBC commentator and announcer for the Seattle Sounders, who moved over to lead NBC's MLS coverage and also led the Olympic soccer commentary team.
White and Martino developed a quick rapport last season, making what could have been a difficult format for soccer (the lead and color announcer being in different parts of the stadium) work seamlessly. As Pierre Moossa, the NBC co-ordinating producer in charge of Saturday's broadcast (and the 150 staff who worked on it) put it:
It's almost like they're having a phone conversation. They can't see each other, but yet they flow so well, and the two of them really make this concept work... The way we see it is if you're having a conversation on your couch or on the phone, you'll obviously step on each others' toes now and then, but the pros outweigh the cons, and the pros are obviously you can get that vision, that sight, that sound. Over here what the coaches are saying; over here the perspective on tactics you never normally get access to.
I was speaking to Moossa, as well as White and Martino (and show anchor Russ Thaler) in the build-up to Saturday's epic broadcast, the centerpiece of which was a two-and-a-half-hour live show, MLS Breakaway, from the station's new studio facility in Stamford, Connecticut. The show was to be anchored by Thaler, with White and Martino providing expert analysis. During the build-up week the anticipation from Moossa and the technical team was about making the format "flow" and respond to the very specific rhythms of soccer. Moossa said:
This is the most challenging part of the show, is the 'flow'. Soccer as a game has a different flow and it is not like in NFL where one team is at the 20-yard line and are probably going to score – (in soccer) teams can score at a moment's notice... soccer's a game where you have to be judicious and you have to be conservative in what you do (in covering it). You can't just switch around between feeds randomly... during play you have to feel it out a little bit and get to the most exciting parts.
Or as White put it: "By and large we'll be reacting to things that are happening instead of getting ourselves into trouble by trying to pre-empt it and anticipate it."
Thaler called the likely effect "a moving-picture Twitter, if that makes sense"; Martino joked that the live show's juggling of feeds, played "right into my ADD", and added:
In the modern era of all the different devices and all the different ways that you can consume your sporting event. I'm sure you're like I am, where you have your laptop on your lap, with your iPad to your right and your TV on. The tough part about that is that it's impossible, it's like looking at a shooting star – the second you look in that area, you've just missed it. Trying to follow all that action on all those media devices is difficult. The great part about the studio is we have 30 people here that are watching the action that can grab these moments and we can show replays. We can have control over the game in a way where we're not going to miss anything. We might miss it live, but everybody's going to see all the action, and that's unique for a weekend full of games.
To make the challenge more difficult, the three were calling the first game of the day live from Red Bull Arena in New Jersey, before bussing quickly to Connecticut to prep for the live show.
I wondered how Moossa et al, having constructed a show built round the flow of soccer, were managing these logistical transitions within the "flow" of their working day. As I was covering the game, I took the chance to duck into the NBC outside broadcast van at Red Bull Arena, just as the initial live broadcast was finishing. The game had been a frenetic 0-0 draw in which New York had attacked relentlessly but DC, as Martino put it to me, "seemed to have cellophane over the goal". (He evidently liked the line, and repeated it later on air.)
As the countdown from the live broadcast ended and Moossa stood up from his seat at the front of the OB truck, there was none of the usual sense of relief or adrenaline draining "We're out!", that you associate with such moments – at least, not for him. Moossa briskly thanked those around them and was straight on his feet and headed for the door, where Martino, White and Thaler were gathering themselves for the short walk to a minibus and a police escort to the highway. White still had traces of his TV make up on his face. Would the team rest en route? "Actually we're going to watch Sporting KC v Chicago on Kyle's phone on the way up – he's got the app. I'm planning on staying caffeinated!"
White hurried away, still enthusing about "the best 0-0 I've seen in years". It had indeed been a wild game, but when the MLS Breakaway show started later, Sporting KC and Chicago hadn't managed a goal either and White's wish that "hopefully we'll see some goals" was not yet being rewarded. As it turned out, the live cameras would only capture one goal as the show moved between feeds, and there were few actual abrupt "breakaways", when coverage was interrupted to switch to an incident elsewhere.
Despite the soccer refusing to play ball with the needs of the broadcasters, the MLS Breakaway coverage was smooth, sometimes even unnervingly so. We didn't get a lot of jerky jump cuts, but there were a lot of subtle slow pans and pushes as the camera refused to ever quite settle, whenever we saw the three presenters in their futuristic studio set. Martino and White alternated between answering Thaler's prompts and speaking to camera, while in voiceover mode they would pick up and comment on the footage in front of them, before segueing into introducing the local commentary teams for a few moments.
These were perhaps the most undefined moments of the broadcast. Moossa had claimed earlier in the week that:
We're not a big fan of calling games off tube. I think it'd be a little bit arrogant of us to think that Arlo and Kyle could call a better game off tube than somebody on site. They're going to need to get to the pertinent information and fill the gaps, but also let it breathe a little bit and let the other announcers take over.
Watching the show, though, once or twice it felt a little like watching a good relay team taking a little too long to pass the baton, and with the studio commentary audio pushed high above the game feed volume, certain live moments had the distant feel of replays, with the game audio atmosphere muted. It was nothing to do with the quality of the analysis – Martino and White are astute commentators – but having come from calling a game earlier in the day they still seemed in announcer mode from time to time, so the transitions to the announcers in situ occasionally felt a little jarring, like changing tense mid-sentence.
But as a first effort, and an epic first effort to boot, the experiment certainly did enough to suggest that a version of it is well worth repeating, not least to address the diffuse presence of the league, because of its staggered schedule. Unlike the English league, there is no traditional kick-off time in MLS, and aside from the other challenges it faces, MLS commissioner Don Garber has called this lack of a distinct "MLS time" in the weekend a challenge for the league in registering with new fans. Experiments like this, which parenthesize MLS weekend action in a coherent way, may help.
MLS and the Premier League
It seems a fair guess to say that MLS Breakaway might be a model for part of NBC's Premier League coverage, and in some ways this experiment with the format was a fairly typical MLS exercise, from an ambitious tech-friendly league looking for edges wherever it can find them. As for how the Premier League coverage and the continued MLS coverage might work together or overlap, Miller was sticking to the "wait and see" line. But he did say:
I think you'll see it [a link] in the form of great cross-promotion. I think you'll see it with consistent 'looks' in terms of production quality. I think you'll see it in some of our '36' programming, which is shoulder-programming (pre- and post-game programming built on rights access) that we do to showcase different athletes... But they're completely different properties and brands and each deserves their own voice.
He also pointed out that where NBC will be the exclusive Premier League rights holder (and it is not planning to subcontract games, as Fox does with ESPN), it is one of several partners MLS has, including ESPN, Univision, numerous local affiliates and its own MLS Digital arm: "It's a much, much different relationship. Our Premier League relationship is significantly broader than our MLS relationship."
One thing that does seem clear, as the dust settles on last weekend's experiment: Miller, Moossa et al are serious about the challenge and aware of the potential of soccer for a newer generation of US sports fans. Before I finished speaking to Miller, he shared another example of how the sport has been opening his eyes:
I think if you walk down the streets of New York City you used to see young people only wearing baseball jerseys and NBA jerseys and stuff like that. Now you see them wearing Manchester United and Liverpool and Arsenal and Tottenham jerseys. Oftentimes when I'd drive through the city early on a Saturday morning, I'd see bars up and down the streets of Manhattan at 8 or 8.30 overflowing with Premier League fans who were going to watch games. I realized that this was a sport that had an enormous passionate following, and if you don't pay attention to that you're making a big mistake...