NBC Sports President of Programming Jon Miller used to sneak out early on Saturday mornings to play a round of golf. Five or six years ago, he was heading downstairs to leave when he saw his 18-year-old son, Robbie, on the couch wearing a blanket, glued to the television.
"I'd say to him, 'You didn't get in until 2 a.m.! What are you doing up at 7:15, 7:30," he said. "You guys are supposed to sleep until noon.' Robbie said, 'Manchester United are playing.'" His other son, Jeff, was a Liverpool fan who also took to spending early mornings watching Premier League broadcasts. As he left the house, he'd see other kids around the block "trudging down the walk" to watch the beautiful game. They would still be there, watching, when he got home from playing that morning.
"I said to myself, 'There's got to be something here to this.' If you don't learn from your kids you're making a big mistake."
Miller sat around, diligently watching his network make the Barclays Premier League what he called "a dominant property" on Saturday. He couldn't have looked prouder, and for good reason. By now, you've seen the reviews and the social media buzz. NBC Sports Network came out on Saturday and made a big, bold statement to the soccer community in this country. Excellently produced, extraordinarily thorough, and for the most part without a hitch. NBC Sports made its case for being America's premiere soccer provider.
I spent my day talking to soccer fans, and my night conversing with the some of the sport's tougher critics: the press room at the New York Red Bulls-Philadelphia Union match (also on NBCSN -- Miller says he'd like to "renew and grow" the network's MLS partnership). The response was universal: aside from a few gripes about the streaming service, and a minor audio problem, everyone seemed downright in love with the presentation.
The network has other large-scale, multi-network events, like the Olympics and the opening rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which gets NBCSN's foot in the door. "When we go talk to a league, there's nobody who can deliver the level of distribution and promotion and vertical integration that we can. We have 20 networks available to us." This, however, was a new undertaking.
Saturday morning, I was embedded with Miller in the network's beautiful international broadcast center in Connecticut. After the broadcast, I spoke to him, the broadcast team, and the man in charge of this production, Pierre Moossa. Armed with a staff of around 100 people that morning, he set out on the task of making the coverage something that Miller would deem "authentic." You can't fool soccer fans in this country, and they all know it. "People here know this sport," Miller said. "You make one little mistake, you're slow on one other thing, you'll hear about it."
Take, for example, the Manchester United-Swansea City match on NBC, the first that NBC used its own announcers on. Early in the game, Arlo White's play-by-play was slightly ahead of the televised action. Miller and the rest of the crew saw it themselves, saw the reaction on Twitter, and immediately put in calls to the correct people to fix it. This is not just an experiment for the network, this is big business.
While Miller beamed like a proud papa, Moossa looked like a professional coach following a sporting event, as did the talent (host Rebecca Lowe after the broadcast: "I have no idea what time is!"). Moossa emphasized what a team effort the production had been, but was still very proud of the work the network had done on Saturday.
"It was a really good start, and I think we were very proud of all the efforts," he said. "We've been planning and organizing this for a long time. The entire company's efforts, from marketing, to promotion, to all the technical efforts, I think we're all really proud to see what we've put on the air. There's things we want to tweak and improve, but I think it was a very good start, and we'll continue to get better."
Moossa is admittedly not a soccer lifer, but he clearly has an eye for talent, given the hires he's made. I've praised of Arlo White before, but Rebecca Lowe is downright outstanding as a host. She's professional, knowledgeable, energetic and has shown immediate chemistry over the first couple of days with Kyle Martino, Robbie Mustoe and Robbie Earle. The entire studio operated smoothly, and while the hosts were unafraid to offer criticism, that wasn't really the aim of the show.
They were clearly prepared, and the credit for that goes to Moossa, who put them through a "bootcamp" as Earle called it, featuring two weeks of intense rehearsals ("I've never worked so hard in my life!" joked Earle) in which every possible situation was gone over. What was bootcamp? Moossa explained:
"I model it a little bit after Sunday Night Football, working under Fred Gaudelli, and a little like Olympics preparation. From the Sunday Night Football aspect of it, we had many rehearsal days where we went through every single aspect and mundane stuff: tosses to the games, how were going to go after the games, all the nuances. That kind of stuff was done in the studio.
But before that was done, when you have new talent -- and this is what they do with the Olympics, when you have new talent you bring them together in different aspects -- we just went through what we expect of our talent and what we want them to do. For example, with the announcers going over to the UK, we just wanted to answer the question 'Why? Why why why?' Less is more, being concise.
For the talent here, we just went over the different things that we want them to do. Robbie Earle, Robbie Mustoe, Rebecca and Kyle, they got the studio side introduction. When I went over to the UK, with Lee and Graham, we gave them the introduction as well. Then we had a rehearsal game on Friday, we just tried to rehearse as much stuff as we can just so we could be prepared for today, because it was an important day."
Another bright spot in NBC's coverage is a lot of golden silence. For example, Lowe and the studio crew went silent for the singing of the Liverpool tradition of singing "You'll Never Walk Alone." According to Moossa, that was the plan, and part of his general philosophy. He credits mentors like Sam Flood (who also has a big hand, as he does in all things NBC, in soccer) and Dick Ebersol for this.
"There's nothing you can say, especially as an announcer, to enhance that performance," he said. "Fans -- and I've talked to a million of them -- when they're watching at home, they just wish they were there. So, with 'You'll Never Walk Alone,' there's nothing they can say that can make that better. When it comes to games and the chanting, there's nothing better than that atmosphere. We talk often about just letting the moment speak for itself."
The most common refrain from the NBC crew was a sense of team. Moossa summed it up perfectly, saying "From all aspects of our company, we worked really hard. I told the guys that everybody from marketing to promotion to digital ... to everyone that had worked so hard, they had kind of set us up to succeed and it was our job to perform today. The group here today did a great job performing."
Of course, now the challenge becomes doing that again for another 10 months. If it's like it was on Saturday, however, it'll be one of the best sports broadcasts on television.