NBC Sports Fan Fest takes place this weekend at the South Street Seaport in New York City. I had the chance to speak with studio analyst and former Premier League player Robbie Earle prior to the event. The one-time Port Vale and Wimbledon midfielder has been a part of NBC’s Premier League broadcast crew since the network began carrying the league in 2013.
TSF: Prior to NBC Sports carrying the Premier League matches were shown on Fox Soccer Channel, Setanta Sports and at certain pubs via satellite. What do you think made NBC Sports so confident to invest $250 million for a three-year deal that began in 2013-2014? (the Network has since reupped for six years at an approximate cost of 1 billion dollars).
RE: I think it’s the unique element of the Premier League as you don’t know what’s going to happen for the full 90 minutes. You can be on 85 minutes and the game can change. Very often the games do change. Look at the recent Liverpool match. You’re making a cup of tea and it’s 0-0 and then that happens. (Divock Oribi’s 96th minute winner).
Look at the Leicester City story. Nowhere in sports would you see something like that. Then there’s Man City playing great football. There are just so many stories.
TSF: Why do you think the EPL has caught on in such a fanatical way in the US?
RE: I think US fans like excellence in their sports, they like speed, they like drama, they like commitment. I think in some ways Premier League mirrors college sports, where there’s a real connection. I think people see that and think wow I like this, I need to find my piece of that. So many times since I’ve been in the US people say to me “which team should I support” I’ll say tell me a little bit about yourself and then I’ll try to work out what might be a good fit.
One of the unique aspects of the league (to an American audience) is relegation. Sunderland is a good example. If you go down, you can keep going down. It changes the dynamic. It makes clubs more driven to make sure they are not down at the bottom of the table. There are always two big stories in the league at the top and the bottom.
TSF: NYC is a melting pot with people from other parts of the world living here so an international sport like soccer has a lot of fans in a city like this. What’s the acceptance like in less international parts of the USA?
RE: I think the pictures we broadcast of fans watching are so compelling. Our directors do a great job. Sometimes we have shots of fans in tears from the excitement. When you see that much raw emotion people buy in to it, they become intrigued and want to find out more. Then when people see the matches and start to understand it, they get hooked and they tend to stay with it.
TSF: Fan Fest is returning to New York for the second time and recently broadcast from Washington, D.C. How do you feel the reception has been to taking the show on the road?
RE: Fan Fest is a good example of how you see people enjoy watching the matches even more when they’re together in a group. Fans can play off of their friends and have a bit of a friendly rivalry with banter between different fans bases.
TSF: When you played in the early days of the Premier League the amount of spending by the various clubs was nowhere near what it is now. Do you feel that the wealthier clubs are taking away from the competitive aspect of the league?
No. There will always be a space for smaller clubs in the league. Bournemouth is a great example. They are in their fourth season in the Premier League with a great young manager and they play good football. People will always support a team like that. Take for example my old team Wimbledon. By all the criteria of what makes a Premier League team, we weren’t that. We couldn’t spend that much but that doesn’t mean that when the bigger teams came to town, we weren’t going to get amongst them and make it difficult. That’s one of the things that’s great about the league. It’s got this great range of teams, from your Manchester Uniteds to your Cardiff’s who just came up and want to stay up. There’s a spot in the league for everybody.
TSF: Jon Miller the President of NBC Sports Programming was quoted saying, “We want to be the network of the Premier League. There’s a big difference. We feel the Premier League stands above every other soccer league out there including the domestic league here.” What are your thoughts about NBC embracing the English league in the US over Major League Soccer?
RE: I think we’re all trying to grow this sport and we have to find a way to engage more people. If the Premier League is raising the profile of soccer in the United States that’s great. As long as people are playing, watching, learning, understanding and talking about the sport it’s a good thing.
Thank you to Robbie Earle and all at NBC Sports Premier League Mornings Live.