English Premier League soccer is among the most viewed sports on the planet. Wherever you go in the world, you’ll see a kid wearing a Manchester United or Liverpool jersey from Bangkok to Buenos Aires. Why then, has it historically struggled to make a firm foothold in the U.S.?
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There have been myriad theories over the years. The traditional English kick-off time of 3 pm on a Saturday means viewers on Pacific Standard Time have to tune in at 8am locally to catch a match. With much fewer breaks in play than American sports, it could be less attractive to TV advertisers, with only a 15-minute halftime between two 45 minute uninterruptable halves offering any chance for exposure. Raising soccer publicity in the U.S. has often relied on grand gestures – Beckham owning Inter Miami FC, say, or over the hill European pros coming to MLS as a shadow of their former selves; even American owners of European teams looking to advance talks for the Super League. There’s been something of an assumption that U.S. audiences need to be sold the product on U.S. terms. It’s starting to look like all that was needed was better access.
While NBCSN’s EPL coverage was generally good – Robbie Earle, Tim Howard and Lee Dixon made for informed and entertaining commentary and analysis – the game suffered from being bounced around various channels from NBCSN to NBC to Gold to Peacock. While the dedicated fan would make time and set alarms for games, the confusing scheduling was unlikely to draw in any casuals or converts. As of the start of 2022, EPL coverage has been moved solely to USA network and the results have been instant. WorldSoccerTalk reports that the corresponding fixtures on January 1st had a 27% uplift in viewership as compared to 2021. It may also have helped that the New Year’s Day fixture list showcased teams familiar to American viewers. Chelsea vs. Manchester City is a blockbuster in anyone’s book, with both teams picking up support in the U.S. due to recent domestic dominance (and more recently, American international star Christian Pulisic signing for the Stamford Bridge side). Newcastle United vs. Leicester City showcased a sleeping giant taking on everyone’s favorite Cinderella story – the Foxes started their title-winning 2015-16 season as 500/1 outsiders.
State of play
This season, the title seems to be the current holder’s, Manchester City, to lose. At the time of writing, they’re 9 points clear over 2nd placed Liverpool, albeit the Merseysiders have a game in hand. The oddsmakers have almost closed the book on them, with English firm Coral ranking City as 1/10 favorites and Liverpool at 13/2 against. Meanwhile, a cash injection from new Saudi Arabian owners and the signings of Kieran Trippier and Bruno Guimarães should keep Newcastle from being relegated out of the Premier League down to the EFL Championship. Where European – and particularly English – soccer could capitalize in the U.S. is via such drama and narrative. Football is the most popular televised sport in America partly because it’s such a short season that every game matters. Likewise, in soccer, where there’s promotion and relegation between divisions, it’s rare to come across a game that isn’t impactful, no matter what the result. Coupled with that, while the EPL isn’t wage-capped, the multi-billion dollar TV rights money is split equally amongst participating clubs. On the European continent, teams are free to negotiate their own broadcast deals and the financial results have meant leagues have been dominated by the 1 (Juventus, Bayern Munich) or 2 (Barcelona, Real Madrid) very top outfits. The Premier League traditionally had a ‘Big 4’ – Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea – and that has been upended regularly over the past decade also, with talk of a ‘Big Six’ also now including Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur.
The English Premier League is the most competitive soccer league in Europe; possibly in the world. It’s exciting, it’s dramatic; it’s a quality product. Packaged properly it could soar. Indications are it’s starting to do just that.