Premier League: How NBC Sports Got Soccer Fans Out of Bed

AP Photo/Jon Super

As the first season of a three-year deal nears its dramatic conclusion, network executives reveal how they have uncovered a new daypart and encouraged sports fans to get up earlier than ever.

After acquiring the rights for the English Premier League in a three-year deal, NBCUniversal's NBC Sports Group has attracted a surprising number of early-bird sports fans for the matches played in the U.K. that air live in the U.S.

"The ratings continue to deliver and grow and we've uncovered a new daypart," Jon Miller, president of programming, NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network, tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Rarely has anyone gone out and attacked that daypart because most people didn’t think there was an audience there, but we've proven that there is from August to May.

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"January was our biggest month ever, and then February broke January's records," he says. The March 16 match with struggling powerhouse Manchester United playing Liverpool brought in 779,000 viewers, to rank as the most-watched early-morning Sunday game this season, and was then followed by Tottenham Hotspur vs. Arsenal (averaging 725,000 viewers), making it the most-watched double-header ever on cable.

Since the start of the 2013-2014 Premier League season, NBCSN has posted four of the five most-watched Premier League cable telecasts on record, with well-known teams such as United still drawing in viewers despite its poor record this season under new manager David Moyes.

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With the early matches starting at 4.30 a.m. PT/7.30 a.m. ET and then staggered throughout the weekend mornings, the huge popularity of the Premier League amongst both Americans and expatriates has created appointment viewing for English football fanatics. 

During the NFL season, the matches conveniently air before that league's games begin -- with fans of both sports even watching them at stadiums in parking lots around the country while tailgating before a Chicago Bears or New York Giants game.

"The Premier League is scheduled brilliantly; you have these windows of time where we show it live, then have the matches surrounded with enough shoulder-programming so that fans on the West Coast who don’t get up until later are still going to be able to watch the key moments," says Miller, explaining that only 15 of the 35 to 40 hours of programming each week are live games.

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Rather than trying to change the innate nature of English football -- like the more family friendly MLS league with cheerleaders and halftime shows -- they have kept it consistent with the U.K. broadcasting style. Miller says: "I think the biggest mistake we could have made was trying to Americanize it. That's why we have British hosts like Rebecca Lowe," who previously had been a presenter on the BBC's Match of the Day.

"There's been a huge response, so many people have come up to me and say they now have a team and are converts," London-born Lowe tells THR. "There are a lot more Americans watching than I thought -- it's a generational thing as the kids are playing in school and growing into the sport. There's a fan base that has been growing steadily over the years and you are now just seeing it."

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NBC is expecting the momentum to heat up as the World Cup looms in June with so many international players in the Premier League to drive the excitement. "But also this year there are so many exciting matchups and the table being so tight to get everyone within four points," says Miller, referring to Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal all fighting for the top spot. "And then you have about half a dozen teams fighting not to be relegated," meaning that the bottom three teams are sent down to the Football League Championship for the following season. 

"That is one of the things that makes the Premier League so unique, American fans are just not used to that -- if you live in a city with a bad baseball or NFL team, you are stuck for a long time. Here the pressure of those last few weeks is enormous, even more so for the teams with the poorer records," he explains. 

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Lowe agrees, saying: "Relegation in the Premier League is what sets it apart. That is a real threat. I think it would be interesting to do that with MLS -- but they are very different sports." She adds: "If MLS had relegation, then they could create a pyramid system. I personally think it could add to it and help MLS and soccer in general in this country."

With two more years to go on the deal once the 2014 season is over, Miller says they are very happy with the partnership, but only time will tell what will happen once the contract is up. He adds: "We would love to continue it but there are a lot of other factors that go into that."