In the gap before college football's bowl season begins, soccer wants your attention, and networks are offering varied broadcasts to try and get it.

By Jacob Feldman
December 06, 2018

Here is this week’s edition of SCREENSHOTS, a weekly report from the intersection of sports, media, and the Internet.


In the gap before college football’s bowl season, the world’s football wants your attention.

Saturday, 7 a.m.: NBC Sports will air a special version of Premier League Mornings Live from New York, with celebrities like Mumford & Sons and CC Sabathia stopping by during the day’s fan festival.

Saturday, 12:30 p.m.: Two of the EPL’s top four teams, Manchester City and Chelsea, face off on NBC.

Saturday, 8 p.m.: The Portland Timbers and Atlanta United will fight for the MLS Cup on FOX in front of what’s expected to be a record crowd in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Tuesday, 3 p.m.: Following the NFL’s weekend, soccer returns with the final matchday of the international Champions League group stage. English institution Tottenham travels to FC Barcelona likely needing a win to advance to the Round of 16, and TNT is sending former U.S. men’s national player Stu Holden and NBA Hall of Famer Steve Nash to call the game as an experiment.

What piques your interest, a classic British battle? A championship bout? Something a little different? Keep in mind, each company is selling the sport slightly different, too, casting soccer in the network’s broader image. To oversimplify and turn to Hollywood analogy, the offerings look something like this.

FOX—a purveyor of pure Americana like NASCAR truck racing, UFC, and the NFL—produces a big, loud action movie with inventive camera positions and a focus on rowdy fans (plus explosions!). TNT, known for its movie reruns, already has the makings of a buddy comedy in close friends Holden and Nash. Known face Tim Howard makes cameos, and the Bleacher Report brand is used to bolster the production’s fun, fresh vibe. Then there’s NBC, which offers the EPL’s tradition, passion, and consistent excellence. It’s Oscar fodder, basically.

So which will it be? Should soccer look/sound/feel like Fast & Furious, Step Brothers, or Spotlight?

Truthfully, each is taking different paths to the same end goal: making a European sport attractive to Americans without losing its authentic core. NBC Sports coordinating producer Pierre Moossa said the fan festivals are part of a larger push to celebrate the U.S. fan experience, a unique one given the matches’ early morning start times. “Our focus is making it feel like a communal experience,” he said. “We want to make sure watching felt like being part of something bigger.” Growing up in Connecticut and later living in Los Angeles, NBC analyst Kyle Martino is used to waking up early to catch matches, and on the Saturdays he’s off-air, he’ll often pop up at a pub to revel in the American soccer experience. Fan Fest, he says, is a celebration of that. “It’s incredibly impressive passion to bring that level of energy and excitement so early in the morning,” he said. This year, NBC has also created YouTube and Snapchat shows to engage its states-based audience.

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It was executive producer Travis Rettke who initially suggested Holden and Nash, a huge Tottenham fan, call the Spurs clash with Barca. “If we can make fans and viewers feel like they are sitting on the couch next to us, joking along and still learning something at the same time, it’ll be a success,” Holden said. “We are really approaching this as just two good friends sitting talking about soccer … as opposed to calling the action in a traditional way.” Ideally, it will be a cousin of TNT’s Players Only NBA telecasts that many have grown to love.

Over the summer, FOX heard plenty of complaints over the largely domestic voices it chose for its World Cup coverage, Holden included. At the time, he said, “American voices should be seen as normal.” The network obviously doesn’t have to worry about Americanizing MLS, which has built itself off regional pride. The league could feel even Stars and Stripes-ier next year, as it considers ditching soccer’s two-match aggregate semifinals for a single-elimination setup.

Truthfully, other factors besides your cinematic taste will determine your preferences. Those near a popular MLS club will be drawn to that gameday experience. Early birds will have an easier time tracking the Premier League. The Champions League can be enjoyed sporadically with a lower time commitment—no need to follow transfer rumours and locker room intrigue to understand the win-or-go-home stakes.

And there are other options too. Some just follow the men’s national team and the international scene. Others will be drawn to Ronaldo’s Serie A or Messi’s La Liga. No matter the choice, it’s worth remembering that you’re probably going to have to pay extra for ultimate enjoyment. NBC keeps many Premier League games on its Sports Gold service, MLS is available on ESPN+, and a bulk of the Champions League fixtures go down on Bleacher Report Live.

In 2005, when Facebook was only for college students and Twitter was but a twinkle in Jack Dorsey’s eye, rabid soccer fan Christopher Harris founded worldsoccertalk.com to discuss the sport online. As other chatter platforms emerged, Harris pivoted his site after noticing how popular his TV schedule subpages were. Now, WST helps users keep track of what soccer matches are available where for how much as the landscape evolves. And business is booming.

“I’m watching two to three games a day on all sorts of different channels,” Harris said, adding that he’s not alone. “The average soccer fan has become a lot more cosmopolitan. Whereas he or she maybe just watched the Premier League or MLS, now they’re watching the Spanish leagues, European leagues, South American Leagues.”

Eventually those competitions might have to fight each other for our attention. But for now, they and their broadcast partners are all working towards the same end, trying to find the right packaging and product to hook the American viewer.

Get you, the thinking goes, and you’ll be all-in. Eventually, you’ll buy the subscription for complete access. You’ll probably become the snob who snorts when a friend calls it soccer rather than football—or better yet, footie. You might even head to World Soccer Talk to rant about how TNT or FOX or NBC or whatever comes next has tainted the beautiful game, never mind that they sold you on it in the first place.

THE MOMENT B/R KICKS WAS BUILT FOR

Bleacher Report is throwing a party. Friday afternoon and evening in New York City, the WarnerMedia shoe-culture brand B/R Kicks is hosting “a sneaker event” called “The Drop Up,” featuring a customization studio, an Adidas reveal, and other related stations.

The Drop Up is B/R’s last event of the year following previous gatherings at the NBA All-Star Game, Summer League and elsewhere—and the forebearer of many more happenings in the future, Bleacher Report CMO/CRO Howard Mittman said. “Events are a growing part of our strategy, and they are an important part of our strategy.”

As Mittman frames it, B/R exists to connect fans with athletes. The company controls demand in the market with its millions of social followers and app users while also maintaining a relationship with the suppliers in the equation. Mittman says his brands have twice as many pro athlete followers as any other sports media outlet in the world. Bringing them together at an event—advertising it via their own channels, as well as an influencer consortium called B/R Squad, and wooing cultural figures—is a physical embodiment of that role.

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But, Mittman added, the special occasion also serves the masses who won’t be at Chelsea Market. “We are building sets for social,” he said. “These are just TV sets by another name that allow us to capture content that engages fans.” Before Friday, Bleacher Report announced two new shoe-focused shows coming to its platforms, “The Pre Heat” and “Sneaker Shock.”

It makes sense for online sports brands looking to build cultural cache, strengthen audience loyalty, and diversify revenue sources to turn to live events. B/R Kicks, Mittman told Variety, will make more money Friday than it has up until now. “We’ve built the brand for this very moment,” he said.

And Bleacher Report isn’t alone. On the same day in the same city, basketball culture network Overtime has its own limited-time offering, The Pull Up, with a differing set of talent and merchandise.

Your Instagram feed is coming to life.


SIGHTLINES

• After Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt was released from the team last week following TMZ’s publication of a video showing Hunt kicking a woman earlier this year, the topic loomed over this week’s NFL coverage. Hunt’s representatives asked for Lisa Salters to come and interview him for ESPN’s NFL Countdown. Salters later explained to The Washington Post what she thought of Hunt and how her background in news journalism helped in that moment.

• Earlier last week, the Redskins claimed Reuben Foster after the linebacker was cut by the 49ers following his arrest for domestic violence. ESPN’s Monday Night crew reportedly planned to discuss that decision during the first half of their Redskins-Eagles game, but an injury to Washington QB Colt McCoy forced them to bump the segment to the fourth quarter. Witten delivered one of his most impassioned moments so far this season in saying that the team demonstrated “horrendous judgment” in picking up Foster. Some then pointed out that Witten was not as outspoken as a player when the Cowboys brought in Greg Hardy, leading the MNF announcer to tweet, “Privately, I let my opinion be known and agreed to disagree. That day after practice I chose not to be divisive. Prob went too far.”

• Ben Strauss visited Bristol to report on SportsCenter’s return to its roots, guided by Norby Williamson, the 11 p.m. show’s first producer, and featuring more of faces from the past like Keith Olbermann and Chris Berman. “When people whine or complain, ‘It’s not the way it used to be—fragmentation, blah blah blah,’ it’s all crap,” Williamson said. To me, there are echos of network television’s recent reboot obsession. Maybe that’s a winning strategy. As Olbermann told Strauss, “If you’re looking forward relative to ‘SportsCenter’ in a linear television format, it’s extinction. But if there are people who are willing to watch this show who are 40 years old, we still have years left to make money off them.”

•  A new podcast, The Corp, featuring Alex Rodriguez and Barstool Big Cat (that’s how Dan Katz is referred to on the podcast’s art, so I’ll go with it) dropped Thursday with the two interviewing figures including Kobe Bryant, Mike Francesa, and 76ers owner Michael Rubin. “I think what Barstool does well is we get people to relax,” Barstool Sports CEO Erika Nardini told Yahoo!. “And I think what we’ve done for Alex is give him a platform where he can be creative and free.” The show is an unexpected twist in a Big Cat gag dating back to 2016. “The one thing I do well is carry a joke long enough that I myself don’t know if I’m joking anymore,” Katz said in the episode that doesn’t include a guest.

•  In the Indianapolis Star, Zak Keefer has a great story on Colts players’ Instagram addiction. “Your life during the season is football, family, football, family,” tight end Eric Ebron said. “Instagram lets us see what’s going on outside the building.” For most players, that window is worth the vitriol that often comes in through it.

• Greg Hardy will make his UFC debut on ESPN+’s first Fight Night broadcast.

• Apple’s upcoming video service will feature a series based on Kevin Durant’s youth basketball experiences. Durant is an executive producer.

The Players’ Tribune is expected to launch a new mobile app after acquiring Unscriptd.  Unscriptd co-founder Brent Scrimshaw said, “We created Unscriptd with the idea of building a technology platform that creates a more robust and meaningful way for athletes to engage with their fans.”

THANK YOU, INTERNET…

...for highlighting “people living in the moment"

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