Is soccer finally getting some respect in this country? NBC is banking on the growing popularity of the sport as it prepares to broadcast the English Premier League in the U.S. beginning on Saturday.
Over the next year, NBC Sports Network will air around 1,600 hours of soccer programming. At the same time, rivals Fox and ESPN have also added more soccer programming.
“There’s certainly a risk of putting too much supply out there in the market,” says Gabe Feldman, who directs the Tulane sports law program. “But with the World Cup a year away, and soccer becoming more and more popular here, I think it’s certainly a risk worth taking because every network out there is looking to fill some air-time with live sports programming. And this might be the next great frontier for them.”
But international soccer could cannibalize the market for domestic soccer.
“There’s always been a tension over 'How do we want to grow soccer in the U.S.?'” says Feldman. “Do we grow it domestically? Or do we grow it by making fans here interested in the international game? And there’s a question now -- can we do both at the same time?”
Others wonder if there is enough U.S. audience for international soccer by itself. Morningstar senior equities analyst Michael Corty has reservations about NBC’s $250 million dollar deal.
“I’m not sure if it makes sense financially,” says Corty.
He doesn’t buy the hype about soccer becoming the next big thing, saying “I’ve heard that for 10 or 20 years.”
But Corty says the move does make more sense as a way for NBC to grow its cable sports brand.
“A lot of the quality, highly-viewed sports programming is tied up in long-term contracts. And soccer was a set of rights that was available. NBC needed to get more live programming on its sports network,” says Corty.
If soccer mania finally takes off, NBC has a winner. If not, soccer may be just a place-holder until more popular sports programming becomes available.