America’s soccer supernova is always just around the next corner, but Rebecca Lowe, who anchors NBC’s coverage of the Premier League in the United States, recalls a few corners already turned. “When I stood in LA in the rain at four in the morning and there were 5,000 people lining up to come in and join us,” she said, referencing one of NBC’s “FanFest” watch parties in 2021, “I was like, ‘Oh yeah, this has not only made it, but this is not going anywhere. This is only getting bigger.’ And there are not many things in this country that can get bigger.”
It sure seems like there are more red-blooded Americans patrolling our streets in Arsenal and Liverpool shirts these days. There certainly are more people tuning in to watch matches from England’s top league: NBC saw 527,000 viewers per TV match window in 2022-23, its eleventh season broadcasting the Premier League, including nine matches that topped 1 million viewers. At times, they were beating the NHL. It’s a long way from 2006, when I devoured every match from the World Cup in Germany and decided to become a “football fan.” Blissfully unaware of the pain and horror that would come with supporting Arsenal for the next decade and a half, I hit Channel Guide on the cable remote and found the Fox Soccer Channel.
In fact, everything was on the Fox Soccer Channel at that point: the Premier League, the FA Cup, the Champions League, Serie A. ESPN had the World Cup, but Fox had pretty much cornered the market on club competition. How things have changed. Fox has kept hold of the most valuable American soccer property of all, the World Cup, a sixty-four-match assembly line that manufactures new fans of the game every four years. (16.8 million viewers tuned in to watch Messi duel Mbappé in last December’s final. The tournament averaged 3.6 million viewers.) Fox also has the Euros, a quadrennial tournament for Europe’s national teams. ESPN has the Bundesliga in Germany and La Liga in Spain, while CBS has acquired Italy’s Serie A and the Champions League, the highest-level soccer competition in the world. Both are shown primarily on its streaming platform Paramount+, and it’s there, along with NBC and Peacock, that the game is being propelled forward stateside.
World Cup and Euro matches don’t occur with the same regular cadence as these leagues, limiting Fox’s time in front of viewers. Besides, there’s just an overwhelming Americanness to the network’s coverage. Fox shows US National Team matches, and Yankee commentators — even play-by-play guys — could make sense in that context. (Even then, it’s tough. An MLS match can sound like a hockey game, particularly when someone “SCOOOORES!”) And there is really no reason for viewers to tune into a crucial Euro 2024 qualifier between England and Italy and find an all-American commentary team, as if an American has to hold your hand through these dark and scary foreign lands. From what I can recall, it was always English commentators on the Fox Soccer Channel back in the day, because fans in the US are tuning in for a product they know is not American. That might be part of why they’re tuning in. Even if someone’s first exposure to the sport is through the FIFA video games, they’re accustomed to a certain soundtrack. “If you’re watching an English product,” Lowe says, “you probably do want a little bit of Englishness associated with it.”
“From day one, when we took this over, the word that kept coming up was ‘authentic,’” says Pete Radovich, creative director of CBS Sports, referring to the network’s acquisition of the Champions League. “I think that sometimes the coverage here in the past had been a little bit too basic.” The network took over the tournament a year earlier than planned after TNT dropped it in the summer of 2020, and Radovich’s team had twenty-eight days to build their coverage. He says it was easier to shoot a studio show in London than in the US at that stage of the pandemic, so they decided to go full Euro. His production team went looking for talent who were working weekends covering the Premier League but were free in midweek to do American TV. “We were meeting some of the greats of the sport on Zoom day after day,” he said. “We had to make quick decisions. We were getting deals done in, like, three days.”
The end product is a studio crew of three decorated former players — Jamie Carragher, Micah Richards and Thierry Henry — who form a raucous and insightful panel moderated by Kate Abdo, a Manchester-born quadrilingual who’s become a star in her own right among fanatical football fans on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s Inside the NBA for the Champions League — and viral moments have given the show a broader cultural foothold, including in Europe. In fact, it’s become something like the program of record for the top-level competition. Fans of the continent’s famous clubs are calling out to the CBS crew when they show up at the stadium, and star young footballers are jockeying to get on for an interview. “We’re arguably more popular in Europe than we are here,” Radovich said. “Imagine the BBC coming to America and doing the NFL to a level that everyone in America is saying, ‘How do we become more like the BBC?’”
On the weekends, Richards and Carragher work for Sky Sports, the UK’s premier football broadcaster. They were also legit players for Manchester City and Liverpool respectively. They bring that legitimacy to the proceedings along with Henry, one of the great strikers of all time for Arsenal, Barcelona and France. They have the ease of manner that comes with enjoying wide and deep respect in their field — and letting them loose to be themselves in Champions League Today’s free format has made them major figures in contemporary global football culture. Suddenly, Luis Enrique — the Paris Saint-Germain manager, formerly of Barcelona — can be found telling Micah Richards that he’s his favorite pundit the same day that the Englishman tore his pants live on American TV.
NBC got its own vote of confidence this summer when Sky came in to recruit their lead commentator, Peter Drury, not unlike a big club coming in for your star striker. When it comes to their north star in coverage, Lowe, a Londoner, also used the term “authentic,” which means something different for everybody on staff. “When I first arrived, I said to our boss, do you want me to say the word ‘table’?” she remembers. “Because you guys say ‘standings,’ but I’m not sure I could. It’s going to be very unnatural. And before I even got to the end of my sentence, he said, ‘No, just say table. That’s why we hired you.’” The vast majority of her colleagues — Robbies Earle and Mustoe, Lee Dixon, Graeme Le Saux, among others — are English, but there’s also an American on set: Tim Howard, the former US National Team goalkeeper who also happens to have done thirteen years in the Premier League with grand old clubs Manchester United and Everton. He’s been in those locker rooms, played in front of those crowds. “You can’t just employ American voices for the sake of having American voices,” Lowe says. “They must have some sort of reputation in the Premier League, in order to have the credibility.” What’s authentic for Howard as a presenter might be different from what works for his colleagues, but his qualifications are comparable.
Outside the sheer volume of competition in the American sporting market, the biggest challenge for NBC and CBS are the times matches are on. Lowe says the team at NBC look at their match windows as some rare unclaimed territory for sports. They’ve sought to turn waking up early on Saturday and Sunday mornings into a cultural tradition with Premier League Mornings. It’s been a boon to parents of young kids who are up anyway, which means NBC is in the business of incubating the next generation of fans. In fact, after ten years, they might be into their second generation. “I meet kids in their twenties now who say, ‘Oh, I used to watch you when I was twelve!’” Lowe says with a groan. “Like, great, thanks a bunch.”
Most Champions League matches air at 8 p.m. GMT on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, which means they’re smack-dab in the middle of the US workday. But CBS pulled in an average of 967,000 viewers per gameday in 2022/23, a new record for English-language coverage in the US (The Spanish-language market, long dominated by networks like Univision, has a whole different make-up.) Radovich thinks they’ve benefited from the shift to work-from-home, where people’s schedules are more flexible or they might put a second screen up while sitting through a particularly boring meeting. They’ve developed The Golazo! Show, an NFL RedZone-style whiparound that brings viewers goals from a bunch of simultaneous matches, to bring Americans “the basketball version of European football.”
Radovich also sees the job of producing these shows differently in 2023: ‘We’re producing for two audiences. We’re producing for the traditional television audience, and we’re producing for a social audience, both at the same time.” Kids are seeing these clips almost immediately at school or on the bus home — along with millions of others across world football fandom. “I don’t ever consider, ‘Would this work for an American audience?’” Radovich says. “It’s always, ‘Will this work for our audience?’ And our audience, in my mind, is the world.” No wonder both CBS and NBC are targeting the NHL and MLB’s perches in the American sporting pantheon. While CBS spends a lot of time making people laugh, Lowe says NBC is determined to be serious.
“The knowledge in this country is far beyond what most people think it is,” she says. “So we educate, we inform, we entertain, we don’t patronize. This is a serious part of people’s lives. Watching their team on a Saturday or Sunday morning can decide the mood for the rest of their week. And we respect that. And we know that they want to watch us take this thing seriously and bring them a show they know they can trust.”
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s December 2023 World edition.