Soccer fans in this country already had it good. It's only going to get better this weekend.
An uncomplicated sports tier with your satellite/cable provider this season will get you the English Premier League (NBC/NBC Sports), Major League Soccer (NBC Sports/ESPN 2), the U.S. and Mexican men's national team (ESPN/ESPN 2), Mexican soccer (ESPN/Univision), and the UEFA Champions League and English FA Cup (Fox Sports 1 -- debuting next week). With a bit more investment, you can catch Italy's Serie A, Spain's La Liga and France's Ligue 1 on BeIN Sport.
But the mainstreaming of soccer is being pushed by NBC, as the network goes all-in on soccer. (You can tell because they sent my former colleague and great sportswriter
Joe Posnanski to England to write about soccer
Starting tomorrow, NBC will embark on an ambitious plan to air all 380 EPL matches -- whether on NBC/NBC Sports, its plethora of cable stations, a Premier League Extra Time bonus TV package AND
. They will show 20 full games on NBC proper, starting with Manchester United vs. Swansea tomorrow at 11:30 a.m.
If you want to know what games are showing and on which channel, check out NBC Sports Match Finder. DirecTV, Time Warner Cable and Dish will offer the bonus Premier League Extra Time overflow TV stations. Time Warner Cable subscribers might be out of luck when it comes to the Internet service though.
Yes, of course, NBC might have stumbled just a bit with "dumbing" down the sport with the Pick Your Premier League team specials or the oft-ridiculed
Twitter pic "How Does a Team Win the Premier League"
Obviously, if you're reading this blog, those two things weren't aimed at you. NBC spent $250 million to get the rights for three years -- they better get more eyes on the matches than Fox Soccer got. A lot more.
So, while it may be slightly awkward, the network appears to be doing a bit more than ESPN or Fox did thus far to grow the sport outside the confines of the niche.
ESPN geared their coverage toward fans already devoted to soccer (like the excellent ESPNFC.com and hiring Ian Darke as the voice of U.S. soccer) and seemed more interested in covering/broadcasting the national teams of the United States and Mexico. (While they broadcast MLS matches, they are often tossed around the schedule or used as counter-programming against football.)
Fox applied the NFL template (right down to the Fox sports robot, studio host Curt Menefee and announcers like Gus Johnson) to appeal to non-soccer fans when it came to massive properties like Champions League or Manchester United/Chelsea-level matches.
Neither approach was really wrong. Both did great things to even bring us the sport in the first place -- especially ESPN with its excellent World Cup coverage. But the game has to expand beyond the niche and it must have its own broadcast template in this country. (NBC using the tried-and-true
"Match of the Day" format
is a huge move in that direction.)
Perhaps the addition of NBC to the landscape has forced its rival stations to up their games and expand their nets. ESPN and Fox are investing in daily recap/highlight shows. ESPN FC* debuted earlier this week and will run Sunday (11 p.m.) and Monday-Friday (4:30 p.m.) usually on ESPN2. Fox Sports Daily (3 p.m.) will debut on Monday.
*ESPN FC has so far been a reliably solid product. It has a good mixture of highlights and analysis, something ESPN always tends to do fairly well. The bonus right now, the show primarily features positive MLS homers like Alexi Lalas, Taylor Twellman and Steve Nicol.
So, you've got tons of soccer on television right now
three major sports players motivated and engaged (read: competing against each other) in moving soccer out of the dark, niche stations (RIP Fox Soccer, you were a necessary and sometimes troubling way station to get here) and into more and more American living rooms.
As Penny Lane would say, "It's all happening."
The big questions I have left all revolve around what happens to Major League Soccer now.
The league's deal with NBC expires soon. (The ESPN deal is also coming to an end soon.) With the bright, shiny new EPL in its portfolio, will NBC let MLS whither? To start with, there will be a fair amount of cross promotion -- it's not like NBC doesn't give MLS a chance right now. Games have appeared on the channel every weekend and have even shown up on over-the-air NBC.
But it's fair to ask if they'll bring some of these EPL innovations to MLS. For instance: When will MLS get its own "Match of the Day" program? And, will we ever see a day when every MLS game is available to watch via extra NBC platforms or an extra bonus tier of stations? Can cross-promotion do enough to convince soccer fans to give MLS a try?
What if NBC decides to let MLS go. Does ESPN swoop in and try to compete with total American and Mexican league coverage? Does Fox make the move and become "America's station"?
I'm going to be optimistic, for now, and rely on the old axiom: "Rising tides lift all boats." Constant coverage and cross promotion with both leagues on the same channel will grow our American league. And the added competition from NBC will force ESPN and Fox to increase audience awareness of MLS -- surely the addition of Clint Dempsey to the league will factor heavily into that too.