Will NBC’s Premier League plans prove a double-edged sword for MLS?

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NBC rolled out their plans for English Premier League coverage Tuesday, and there's certainly a lot there for soccer fans to like. The amount of coverage they're devoting to the league, between live-game broadcasts, highlights, replays and magazine shows is staggering, and it shows that the network is truly committed to the Premier League product. However, that may prove both beneficial and harmful for MLS, the other main soccer league NBC televises. NBC is carrying an impressive amount of soccer coverage here, and much of it will air on a general-sports network, NBC Sports Network; that's remarkable, and that should certainly have positive effects on soccer across North America to at least a degree. MLS may now seem like a lower priority for NBC, though, and it may be a tough sell to viewers if directly compared to the Premier League. The deal looks like a double-edged sword, one that could cut in MLS' favour but one that could also easily harm the North American league. 

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There are certainly some areas where MLS would seem to gain from the Premier League having an increased television presence in the States, and the key one there may be just stimulating further interest in soccer. If soccer games, replays, and highlights are often being shown on NBCSN, that may well help to bring casual fans to the game. Sure, the vast majority of those fans would probably flock to English soccer first and foremost, but some of them might well be interested in watching a local MLS team on TV as well, or heading to a game locally. Moreover, this wave of Premier League content should help to elevate the profile of NBC Sports Network, which still has its struggles with prominence. Getting more people to think of the channel as a legitimate source for sports (and specifically for soccer) means some of them will check just to see what's on, and some of those may end up watching MLS broadcasts. Given the ratings issues many of those broadcasts have had, that seems positive. The league has set attendance records and averages more fans per game than the NHL and the NBA and is 7th compared to other soccer leagues around the world, but it has not broken through as a desirable TV product.

The Premier League deal with NBC is far from universally positive for MLS, though. One of the most crucial changes is that MLS now goes from "NBC's soccer content" to "NBC's other soccer content." Under those circumstances, there's far less incentive for the NBC networks to really promote MLS. Before, it was one of the biggest sports properties they had; now, it's quite a ways down the chart. Scheduling issues might also come into play. There aren't going to be many direct conflicts with live MLS games, given the time zone difference between North America and England, but all those highlights and magazine shows need solid chunks of airtime. If those EPL-focused shows pull in better ratings than what MLS has done, it's not hard to see them receiving a higher priority and more desirable time slots, while MLS coverage is moved to more obscure slots. 

The debate over if expanded Premier League coverage will promote or discourage North American soccer fans from checking out MLS is an old one, and one that hasn't really been resolved. At one pole, you have those who argue that any soccer is good soccer and will watch any league; at the other one, you have those who maintain that English (and European) soccer is all that's worth watching. In the middle are a whole cast of people, from those who think local-first but also support English teams to those who are Premier League-focused but also go to local games, Those disparate groups are also likely to have different takes on just how this NBC deal will play out for MLS: the "any soccer is good soccer" crowd will see the benefits of added soccer exposure outweighing the drawbacks, while the "English soccer only" groups will see the amount of coverage here as an endorsement of their view that overseas soccer is all that matters, and those in the middle will likely be split. Those camps are largely already established, though, so what really matters for MLS is how new soccer fans will react to this extra Premier League focus. If this gets more people into soccer in general and some of those into North American soccer as well, it could be a boost for the league, but if new fans see MLS as a lower-tier product that's not worth bothering with, this could be a harsh blow for it. The British are coming: the real question is how they'll be received. 

Andrew Bucholtz

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz is a staff writer for Awful Announcing. He also covers the CFL and other sports for Yahoo! Canada.

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