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30 October 2012

NBC's acquisition of Premier League TV rights a blow to American Soccer

 The television broadcasting conglomerate NBC announced on Sunday that, beginning in 2013, they had acquired the domestic television rights to England's Barclay's Premier League (EPL) for the next three seasons.

Allegedly, part of NBC Sport's selling point to EPL league chief executive Richard Scudamore was the "historical quality" of their international sports coverage. (I can only imagine that they're [somehow] alluding to NBC's Olympics coverage, which is about as biased towards American athletes and contextually shortsighted as possible.)

In any case, NBC Sports' deal with the EPL, worth an estimated $250 million, comes as a strong blow to rival cable television networks ESPN and Fox Soccer (FSC), who are the only two stations currently showing Premier League matches in the States.

Fox Soccer in particular, has been steadily losing its television rights to several other premier European soccer leagues. If the network does not act quickly to stop this bleeding, it may soon find itself in the same zone of obsolescence as GolTV, the once proud owners of television rights to Spain's La Liga (from 2004-2012), who now only show German Bundesliga and a few less-popular South American matches. As a result, Rupert Murdoch's satelite television giant DirecTV dropped GolTV from their broadcast packages.

Even with their extravagant financial offer, which was reportedly four times what any other network was willing to pay, NBC will feel confident that they can recoup expenses in a timely fashion given football's increasing popularity in the United States. While this might be music to the ears of English football fans on the "left side of the pond," who for so long had to illegally stream their beloved "Gooners," "Spurs," or "Red Devils,"it may actually hinder the development of football in the United States.

European football fans, such as myself, have long complained about the difficulty in watching European club football in America. Either you had to pay loads extra on your cable bill for a paltry selection of weekly matches, or you illegally streamed the trials and tribulations of your beloved team through your [faulty] internet connection. Depending on the specifics of the deal, NBC's EPL acquisition could change all of that.

As one of the largest broadcast networks in the States with a signal that is included in most basic cable packages, NBC could potentially deliver what Mr. Scudamore called, the "biggest and broadest programing." Yet nothing is universally "good." It's important to remember the "grey areas," or, what's good for one party may be bad for others.

In this case, NBC Sport's previous tenants, the MLS, will undoubtedly suffer from the "new deal."

Not only will the amount of airtime afforded to the less-developed, less-accomplished MLS decrease, but so will their profits and overall visibility. It's not that every American teen who plays soccer dreams of being in the MLS, but the MLS is all many of them have on hand; its teams the only ones that they can see in person, its players the only that they can tangibly look up to.

There's no denying that the EPL is among the world's best leagues. Some of the world's most accomplished footballers ply their trade for Premier League teams and dominate the limelight of world football week-in and week-out. It's also true that English football is more popular in the States and than any other league. But by effectively riding themselves of MLS, NBC is yet again embracing the "logic" of capitalist at the expense of contributing to the development of a national product. Such is globalization people!

Allow me to sum up the idea here if I have not yet been sufficiently clear...

NBC , a highly visible television network, acquires the rights to a more popular league (the EPL). Because NBC is included in basic cable packages (that are cheaper and more accessible than ESPN/Fox Sports), they will attract more viewers, and hence, generate more profits.

They will do this at the expense of the MLS, whose matches were previously shown on NBC. The MLS mostly consists of American and Central American players (it's where the majority of the Yanks and chavales from Central America have been cutting their proverbial "football teeth" before heading off to brighter pastures. In other words, less MLS exposure=less interest in MLS=less profits for the MLS=bankrupt MLS=big problem for the development of domestic talent in the US. Wow, I need to breath for a moment, that was heavy.

The other day I chronicled my first experience at an MLS match between Sporting Kansas City and the Philadelphia Union. The match may not have caused me to fall in love with the "beautiful game" all over again, but the unique passion of their fans encouraged me to give MLS another chance. I have no premonitions that the MLS will ever be a world class football league, but if nothing else, it's middling quality has served a decent purpose over the past decade by generating some solid American talent (Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Landon Donavon, Michael Bradley).

Things may now get more complicated for the MLS. If its survival and ability to attract domestic talent was dependent on gate entrances, advertising, and to a lesser extent, television revenue, it may now need to look elsewhere for funding. NBC shot the MLS in the foot with this one.

While this doesn't come as a complete shock, it is disappointing for those of us living and studying in the States who are attempting to break into sports journalism by covering soccer.

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