By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 13, 2013) US Soccer Players – Only in American soccer would we be feigning excitement when a broadcaster commits to under delivering. Sure, there are probably more flattering ways to take NBC Sports Soccer Group coordinating producer Pierre Moossa's comments to Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch. In the piece, Moossa says "our coverage is going to be very simple: We are going to get out of the way and just cover the game and the league properly."
It's an open question on both sides of the Atlantic for what that really means. Repeating the last names of players is the cliché of English soccer commentary, and there are enough examples of English broadcasters encouraging the talent they employ to try something closer to what you'd expect from a major American network's coverage. Nobody operates in isolation anymore, and the contemporary model has little choice other than to embrace a variety of influences.
What that means for the coverage of established leagues by foreign outlets is a very good question. We're still firmly in the era of English voices for English sports in the United States, and NBC's Premier League coverage operates with that precedent. In an interview with Philly.com's Jonathan Tannenwald, former MLS player and current NBC Sports soccer reporter Kyle Martino addressed that, saying "I think that little dance is a delicate one that everyone has tried to do. So far NBC has done such a good job of getting that right, and for them to give me the nod as the sole American voice on the broadcasts is a tremendous honor, and something I'm going to take very seriously."
It seems clear to Martino that there might not be a 'right' that suits everybody, but when will that ever be the case? It's trying to reach the median that's the trick for all mainstream broadcasters, especially for properties that are still trying to identify with the mainstream. NBC Sports' predecessor in the Premier League business in the United States, Fox, tried to mainstream its coverage by using its over-air broadcast network, and NBC is following suit. That, more than anything, is the major step for the club game in the United States. That's the situation for everything from the Champions League on Fox to Major League Soccer on NBC, pushing the game into the easiest possible access.
- Step 1: Do you have a television?
- Step 2: Turn it on.
From there, it really is putting the game in context. NBC Sports is the latest to say the right things, but we've seen the attempts to turn the Premier League into an extension of 'Cool Britannia.' That relic of the late 90s needs David Beckham in a Manchester United uniform to have a chance at working. In 2013, English soccer isn't a lifestyle brand, it's a sport - one marketed among many others. That's the mindset that has the best chance of avoiding the traps associated with trying to build a soccer-specific audience in the United States at the level the investment requires. We've also seen the attempts to follow the template of other popular American sports with what we'll politely refer to as mixed results.
It's not just a marquee league with an established brand like the EPL. It's also the basics, like highlights shows. All of the networks interested in soccer are trying to figure out the best format for showing clips from across soccer, and again the proof of success is in getting people to watch. FS1, ESPN, and NBC Sports Network aka NBCSN are all trying unique takes on the studio show, and again that requires picking and choosing from what's already available from UK and US sources along with attempts at innovation. Though that should mean different looks for the shows, it also means at least one of them is likely to get it wrong.
Again, this also isn't new territory with Fox and ESPN both with a long history of trying to attract an audience for soccer-specific programming that isn't broadcasting games. Both of those networks trying again is enough of an indication of how difficult finding the right mix is.
For its part, NBCSN isn't isolating itself with one rights package. They're broadly committing to soccer and other sports in competition with Fox and ESPN, all three with dedicated channels and programming blocks attempting to show that soccer will work given the proper promotion. All of them are looking for an answer, one good enough to strengthen the ratings. That's nothing new for how to produce soccer programming that Americans might want to watch.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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