BOSTON — I was in a hotel in Boston, speaking to all of the prominent members of the NBC Sports Premier League team. Right off the bat, a moment summed up the group — host Rebecca Lowe, analysts Kyle Martino, Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe, and play-by-play man Arlo White — and their popularity with American soccer fans. Martino was first to offer his thoughts on what the group could do, considering their overwhelming success in year one of the network’s coverage, to improve and not merely rest on their laurels.
“We’ve had a lot of production meetings to sort of recap the first year,” Martino said. “I think the overall point was ‘more of the same’ and not try to reinvent, or new gadgets and exciting things that would make it look like something completely different. Don’t try to fix something that’s not broken.”
“That being said,” added Mustoe, “we still want to tweak things and make things a little bit better.”
“So not that at all,” Martino jumped in, busting the entire room in laughter.
It’s quickly evident that everyone on air is having a blast doing this — Martino and Earle fly in every weekend from Los Angeles just to get to work on what is probably, in their heads, around 1 or 2 a.m. PT — and everyone enjoys one another’s company. That said, there is a serious side and a genuine eye towards improvement.
The serious side of NBC’s EPL team is perhaps best found with coordinating producer Pierre Moossa. You’ve likely heard his name more than once or twice if you’re a soccer diehard over the past year or so, because Moossa — a self-admitted new fan, but quick study, to the beautiful game — has put together a broadcast that rivals some of the best on television. Moossa (who worked as a PA for Arena Football on NBC in one of his first jobs at the network, as well as the NFL, Notre Dame, horse racing, golf and tennis) is extremely business-like in person, and you see why he succeeds where often other newcomers haven’t. You sense that he clearly respects the people who have taught him (Moossa cites NBC bigwigs Dick Ebersol, Sam Flood, Tommy Roy and Fred Gaudelli as just a few of his mentors) and adds on his experience with a tireless work ethic.
NBC Sports President of programming Jon Miller told me that it was Moossa’s effort on projects that he described as “not as glamorous” that made him perfect for this challenge.
“Pierre’s worked for us for a while,” he said. “He’s worked on a lot of properties, and everything he touches, he does a great job with. He has unbelievable preparation skills, he’s so incredibly focused. He’s demanding, but he’s demanding of himself so he expects that of everybody who’s working with him, and he makes everyone around him better. We gave him Heads Up Poker, but he took that and he owned it, and he turned it into a terrific show. He’s smart about all the different aspects and he took all the time and energy to learn [soccer].”
Many know by now of the “boot camp” he put the crew through in the weeks prior to launch. He is tirelessly prepared. “You demand and work with a team on being the best you can from the very first show,” he said. “That was the priority for us. It wasn’t “oh, we’ll eventually get there” it was the very first show, you only make a first impression once, and we wanted people to enjoy our broadcasts.”
As is often the case with the better productions of sports or any television show, the critics aren’t what Moossa is worried about, but accountability and the ability to have all of his bases covered. “I don’t know if my focus was necessarily on how people perceive. I focus on things I can control,” Moossa said. “I can’t control ratings, I can’t control the people that are writing, I can’t control what people think. I spent a lot of time, and our team spent a lot of time, working on soccer in many different facets. We went and asked a lot of people what they wanted, we did a lot of research, watched as many shows as we could, and then we tried to put on the best possible show.”
Not that they’re not unaware that criticism might be out there. “I played at a club called Wimbledon,” quipped Earle. “Where if you didn’t go at it 110% you heard about it immediately. That’s part of how we look at it.”
The success of the broadcast team lies in their chemistry, though all were from somewhat different backgrounds, despite being diehards. Lowe was poached after her work on Euro 2012 for ESPN. Martino, the only American, and White had been with the network a couple of years on MLS coverage, which Earle had helped out on. Mustoe came from ESPN.
“I think the team really compliments the broadcast and does an exceptional job, but number one is that they’re soccer fans,” said Moossa. “When the games are going on, you can tell they’re getting giddy, they’re elbowing each other… I say this with affection, but they’re soccer nerds. All of them are. It’s infectious.”
Lowe often sets the tone for the group on set and off. She explains why there is such appeal in covering the game the way they cover it. “During the season, you’re in the same place every week, but I think the thing is, the soap opera of story lines is there. We sit there at 5 a.m. and there’s something that wasn’t there last Saturday. It’s just constantly changing, so it’s always fresh. No one’s forcing us to go down a mine, it’s the greatest job ever,” Lowe remarked.
How does Moossa see year two?
“We set a very high level, but every show has to be better. There’s going to be no drastic changes and no crazy additions (NOTE: whether or not you see it as crazy, this was before NBC announced that the popular Men in Blazers had joined the network to host their own show). Ultimately, could we perform better? Absolutely. We spent the whole summer evaluating what we did, critiquing it, and discussing what we could do better.”
Hard details on what will be visibly different are scarce, but Moossa promised upgrades to the digital/second screen experience. Other than that, viewers can expect a lot more of what they love already about the NBC/Premier League product which, when you narrow it down, comes down to a serious love of the sport.
“Football is the biggest talent,” says Lowe, “and we’re just fitting around it. We’re just lucky, we make sure to compliment it.”