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Match Review: NBC Sports' Premier League Coverage

I don't want to talk about the game. I want to talk about the talking about the game.

This used to have Gareth Bale on it.
This used to have Gareth Bale on it.
Tom Pennington

With a new season of the Premier League comes new broadcasters. NBC has started their coverage of all things Premier League, and after the first full weekend I figured it was a fair enough sample size to review their coverage so far.

I have never been a fan of Fox Soccer's coverage of the game. They started their coverage of the English Premier League in about 1993 with the execrable, overwrought, high-school-poet-level slogan "Our World. Our Life. Our Game", and it only got worse from there. In the nearly 20 years that they covered Premier League soccer, they never really improved- their camera coverage was inadequate, when HD became a thing they were a couple years behind the curve, their announcing teams ran the gamut from unremarkably boring to fingernail-pullingly bad, and outside their game coverage, they really didn't do anything to support/increase visibility of the Premier League.

They always made the Premier League feel like an afterthought, and it never got any better. So when NBC announced they got the rights, I was excited - NBC are good at sports, they've been broadcasting for decades, and they know how to do things right. So I was watching this weekend with an optimistic yet slightly fearful eye, hoping they wouldn't go too far to the THIS IS AMERICA AND THIS IS HOW WE DO SPORTS HERE side of the spectrum, that they would respect the game and not try to shoehorn things like dancing robots (yay Fox!) into their coverage, but also making it un-English enough that it would stand out.

The Ted Lasso ads were a nice nod to this balance - they acknowledge that many Americans don't know soccer, but they also provide a sort of safe way in for people who might be curious.

In the games that I watched this weekend, they largely succeeded - I had forgotten, and was pleasantly surprised, that former Timbers color commentator Robbie Earle was brought on to do pre-game stuff, so when I turned on the Arsenal game Saturday, his was the first voice I heard, which is always a good start. The pre-game panel was pretty interesting - they didn't pander to either the hard-core fan or the complete newbie, they struck a pretty solid balance between assuming their audience knew at least the basics and not going completely "inside baseball" and catering to the hardcore only.

As far as the announcers go, I was pretty happy - I watched the Arsenal game, and I watched part of the Manchester United game, and the PBFC game on Sunday. The announcers in all the games tended more towards the understated than the oversaturated as far as their play-by-play went. As we all know, American sports commentators abhor silence and tend to fill every single second with words upon words that amount to nothing in particular; I think we were all hoping for more of the English style of soccer commentary than the American. I think overall, in the game and a half I watched, the word I would use was "balanced" - the announcers did a really nice job of calling the game without going way overboard and being really annoying.

The announcers are also not oblivious to events, either - at the end of the Arsenal game, they touched on the unrest in the crowd, talked about Wenger's track record a bit, and did so I thought fairly. They didn't take a position one way or the other, and they acknowledged it without editorializing.

The other attraction of NBC Sports' coverage is a show called "Match Of The Day" - this title will of course be familiar to the English, as that's the title of the longest-running highlights show in England. The American MOTD follows the same basic template as the English one, albeit without the awesome theme song; it shows extended highlights of several matches, post-game interviews with managers, and offers some discussion about games, tactics, and strategies.

And again, it does all this without pandering to total novices; it's an interesting breakdown of the weekend's games that provides a lot of context and discussion around the talking points of the games. The commentators are a good mix of English and American, and they all have a pretty good sense of how to talk to each other and not over and around each other. It seems like more of a discussion than a sports shout radio show, which I am really happy to see.

So, even though it's only been one weekend, I really think NBC's doing a nice job with their coverage; they're finding their feet, but it's also very apparent that they have done their homework, that they hired solid talent, and that they are not going to treat the Premier League like a tangential set of broadcasts to golf or MMA or NASCAR, but as the tentpole for their sports coverage.

I've said it before, but it bears repeating - we now live in an age where we get more access to Premier League games than English people do. That blows my mind, and it's also good to see that NBC are taking their investment seriously. If this weekend is any indication, the Premier League is in good hands with NBC.