Clever marketing and an aggressive commercial strategy result in sports-mad Americans taking to the English game
When trying to sell the Premier League to a new audience in America, the network NBC recruited comic actor Jason Sudeikis to star in a promotional video as "manager" of Tottenham. "Football's football no matter where you play it," insists Sudeikis's brash character, Ted Lasso, in a press conference after making the move from NFL, before barking incongruous instructions on the touchline at Spurs' training ground.
It has been this ability to mock itself, say NBC, that has contributed to its broadcasting success. After signing a deal with the Premier League in autumn 2012, paying $250m (£157m) to air matches over the next three years, viewing figures after the opening seven weeks of the campaign are up 93% compared with the same period last term.
"Showing that we can poke fun at ourselves got us an enormous amount of credibility," says Jon Miller, NBC Sport's president of programming. "The fact we admitted we didn't know everything there is to know and poked a bit of fun at it, broke down a lot of barriers."
However, satirical humour has played just a small part in NBC's success. A vast marketing operation – which included Premier League advertisements in Times Square, individual club badges wrapped around the New York subway and British taxis decked in club colours– plus an aggressive commercial strategy have ensured the Premier League's popularity has surged across the United States.
All 380 Premier League matches are available to NBC viewers this season, across various platforms, the majority on NBC Sports Network, which was established in January 2012 and costs viewers a subscription of $0.31 (19p) a month.
Ratings are steadily growing as the season develops, with Everton's home match against Chelsea in September, broadcast across the whole NBC network, pulling in an average audience of 917,000. Highlights are shown and matches previewed on Sundays during live coverage of the NFL, something Miller describes as unprecedented, and 12 million people have tuned in – a significant increase on the 5.5m managed by ESPN and Fox Soccer this time last year. "We expected it to do well – it's lived up to our expectations and, in a lot of cases, exceeded them," says Miller. "What is surprising is how many people have jumped on this bandwagon so quickly and have fallen in love with it.
"There have always been a lot of people in this country who have loved soccer, but I don't think as many people really embraced the Premier League as they have now. It has become part of the daily conversation in this country, much more relevant and important.
"It's rapidly overtaking other sports in terms of attention and social conversation, coverage in print and broadcast news. You're seeing a real growth, while sports like baseball have levelled off a little bit. Fringe college football has been marginalised, so some of those properties have taken a hit."
Kick-off times, some as early as 7.45am on a Saturday on the east coast, mean there are no clashes with the major US sports NBC covers. The Sports Network broadcasts live NHL, Nascar, golf and horse racing – having also recently purchased the rights for Formula One – and will show 154 of the 196 games that NBC will cover. Another 184 matches, which are not being televised, can be watched for no fee at Premier League Extra Time, a service available to NBC cable and telephone customers, while all 380 games are being streamed on NBC Sports Live Extra.
After agreeing the deal with NBC, Richard Scudamore, the Premier League's chief executive, said: "I've done business in 212 countries in the world. There may be 1.2bn people in China and 1.3bn people in India – and there are huge numbers around the world – but nowhere do they consume sports like they do here."
The appetite is evident and coverage has been well received so far. Rebecca Lowe, formerly of the BBC and ESPN, anchors the live coverage in the studio, based a short distance from New York, along America's east coast in Stamford. She is joined by pundits Robbie Earle, Robbie Mustoe and the former US midfielder Kyle Martino, while Arlo White, formerly of BBC 5 Live, is the lead commentator and is often joined by Lee Dixon and Graeme Le Saux.
A benefit of the increased Premier League coverage is that more viewers are tuning in to NBC's broadcasts of Major League Soccer. Miller dismissed criticism that focus on the English game would negatively effect the MLS, with 60% more viewers watching the domestic league compared to last season. "The Premier League has spectacular leadership, people who really get it and understand it," he says. "Our team has worked very closely with their executive people, and several teams, including Tottenham and Chelsea, have been particularly helpful and aggressive in terms of trying to help us this year. Manchester City as well."
Given NBC's success, one suspects other American networks will return to the table when it is time to re-negotiate the Premier League TV deal.
"When the opportunity arises, we hope to make a solid presentation again and hope the Premier League would look favourably on what we've done," adds Miller. "There's no question in my mind that there will be a long line outside their doorstep."
That will be music to Scudamore's ears, as the Premier League continues to grow across new frontiers.