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Has NBC Sports Found the Secret of Selling Soccer to U.S. TV Viewers?

Wayne Rooney - P 2012
ManU and English national team forward Wayne Rooney

The viewing figures got off to a solid start, and the early weekend coverage in the U.S. means the games have been given a chance to grow a fanbase.

NBC's decision to bet big on soccer, signing a three-year deal to snatch U.S. rights for England's Premier League away from Fox, was considered one of the riskier rights deals of the past few years.

Many have tried to sell the world's favorite game to American fans. Many have failed.

But expect a surprising, that is a surprisingly large, number of Americans to tune in to NBCUniversal's live Premier League coverage this weekend.

The first two weeks of top-flight soccer have exceeded everyone's U.S. rating expectations, reaching a peak with NBC Sports Network and NBC Sports Live Extra drawing record numbers for coverage of Monday afternoon's Manchester United vs. Chelsea Premier League match.

NBC Sports Network's telecast averaged 536,000 viewers – its best weekday audience since the 2012 London Olympics. Viewership peaked at 682,000.

While numbers like that are "not great if you're trying to keep a sitcom on the air," for soccer coverage in the U.S. they rate "at least a triple if not a home run," Dave Morgan, managing editor, international at sports industry news site Sports Business Daily Global told The Hollywood Reporter.

Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC and NBC Sports Network, credits that initial success to not dumbing down or otherwise "Americanizing" its Premier League coverage for a U.S. audience.

"In the past, NBC has been as guilty as all the other networks in trying to fit a square peg in a round hole when it comes to soccer and the U.S. audience," Miller said. "This time we were determined not to Americanize this product. The Premier League is English and our broadcasts are uniquely English with a great English host in (former BBC Sports presenter) Rebecca Lowe and knowledgeable commentators who know the Premier League and can talk about it intelligently."

Speaking to THR, Lowe said she makes only minor adjustments in presenting to a U.S. audience such as paraphrasing the meaning of local derby (a match between teams from the same city or locality) "so that casual fans aren't left out."

Lowe, however, admits to having to explain the offside rule. "Because actually nobody anywhere understands the offside rule. It has changed so much and become so complicated."

NBC's approach to the beautiful game has won plaudits from U.S. fans, but Miller admits the network has also come to soccer at the right time, when interest in the sport is surging in the States. "Things have changed a lot. The U.S. audience has changed, its become more cosmopolitan, more open to new properties, he said. "I think the game itself has also changed in the way it's produced and in the way it's distributed, which provides many more possibilities to reach audiences."

"Soccer is gaining an audience here, you can see that from the growth of the MLS all the way down to the youth leagues," Morgan added. "And NBC's put together a good package. Technically it's strong, lots of camera angles, smartly shot, and without commercials that ruin the natural flow of the games."

Interestingly for NBC's ad team, the demographics of U.S. soccer fans seem to skew much younger than that of the average American sports fan.

"It's also a much better educated demo, much closer to the demo we get for the Olympics or for hockey," Miller said.

Even with the solid start, Premier League soccer in the U.S. is still a long ways from being a mainstream spectator sport.

Critics also point to the fact that for the first two weekends NBC's soccer games had no real competition since they air in the early morning in the U.S. when no other live sports are on.

That could change with the start of the college football season, where kickoff times mean a few Premier League matches will go head-to-head with the NCAA games.

Miller, however, argues the impact will be minimal.

The U.S. soccer audience is still tiny compared to the millions that tune in every week in the U.K. and around the world to watch the English Premier League. But NBC's initial success has set off speculation as to how big soccer could get in America.

Said Morgan: "Is it going to knock college football off the top off the charts? No. But I don't think that is NBC's goal with this package."

Miller avoided giving a concrete ratings forecast for the Premier League, saying the initial numbers have "already far exceeded our expectations. … Our biggest challenge right now isn't to grow the figures, our biggest challenge is to not to mess it up."

It remains, as always, a game of two halves for everyone.