NBC bets big on English Premier League soccer

(Eds: With AP Photos.)By RACHEL COHENAP Sports Writer

British sports announcer Arlo White remembers visiting relatives in Chicago more than two decades ago and flipping through a seemingly endless array of television channels.

”I was somewhere in the 300s, I think, on cable TV, and suddenly I saw a 17-year-old Ryan Giggs thrashing in a volley from Manchester United against West Ham United,” he said this week. ”And I was overjoyed that I managed to find this little snippet of English football action.”

Starting Saturday, White will call NBC’s $250 million experiment that tests how many Americans now find joy in a glimpse of Premier League soccer – and how many more will latch on with the games no longer buried in the hinterlands of the channel lineup.

”It’s so ironic that 22 years later there’s every chance that I’ll be commenting on Manchester United and a team containing a 39-year-old Ryan Giggs and providing that as part of this unprecedented amount of coverage to the American market,” White, the network’s lead play-by-play voice, said on a conference call. ”Is it a tipping point? We’ll have to wait and see.

”I just know that there is a huge amount of following of the game in the United States. And even if you’re the fifth or sixth or seventh most popular sport in a country of 350 million people, you’re still very viable.”

As part of its three-year contract, NBC Sports Group will broadcast all 380 games from the Premier League this season in some form – more than what’s even available in the United Kingdom. The main U.S. outlet for the EPL will shift from Fox Soccer to NBC Sports Network, doubling the number of homes in which those games are available.

Under the EPL’s previous three-year deal with Fox, which was worth about $80 million, some matches were sublicensed to ESPN.

Games on ESPN and ESPN2 last season averaged 208,000 households. For NBC Sports Network – which was averaging 273,000 homes in prime time for this year through late July, according to Nielsen – it’s a chance to add live sports on weekend mornings and weekday afternoons.

But the company’s investment is as much a bet on how viewership can grow in a fertile environment as on the sport’s prior popularity. That means a big advertising and marketing push – including the spot starring former ”Saturday Night Live” star Jason Sudeikis, spoofing the American football-European football divide, that has more than 4 million YouTube views.

The idea is that airing more games and making them easier to find will mine a previously untapped audience whose interest is already piqued.

”There’s just so much conversation,” said Jon Miller, the president of programming for NBC Sports. ”It almost is to the point where they say, `I’ve got to check this out. I’ve got to find out what the big deal is here.”’

Beyond the games on NBC, NBCSN and the company’s other networks, matches will be streamed online and televised in the Premier League Extra Time package. That service allows many cable and satellite subscribers who receive NBCSN to watch every game for free.

NBC could have charged for the package, which is common for other sports. But in the pursuit of new viewers, the wide variety of choices is valuable.

NBC likes the EPL for the affluent, educated demographics of the fan base, and those people are juggling multiple devices as they watch sports.

”In the past, we would put it out there and say, `You have to watch what we put on the air,”’ Miller said. ”It’s no longer that way. We are at the mercy of the viewer.”

And for customers who are considering going without cable or satellite service, the package may be enticement to subscribe.

”That for us was a very important part of our model and part of our equation,” Miller said. ”So did we leave money on the table? It remains to be seen.”

NBC will emphasize the fierceness of the rivalries in English soccer, a focus that proved popular during the recent lockout-shortened NHL season.

”The top flight of English soccer seems to have romanticism about it,” said White, who previously called Major League Soccer games. ”It’s where football was invented. It’s where the concepts of having league competitive soccer was introduced in the 1880s. And I think clubs like Manchester United, like Liverpool, like Arsenal and more recently perhaps Manchester City and Chelsea, they resonate throughout the world.”