PHILADELPHIA — If you can imagine a Major League Soccer promo running during a Notre Dame-Michigan clash, Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals or even the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, then it’s easy to envision the future of soccer in the United States.
The incredibly wide reach of NBC and its affiliates is at the forefront of the watershed three-year broadcast deal between the network and MLS announced on Wednesday, and it gives the league a chance to finally resonate in households it’s been longing to reach since the league’s inception.
The deal is set to begin at the start of the 2012 season, and NBC and the rebranded NBC Sports Network will broadcast 45 matches per year. The NBC flagship station will broadcast two regular-season games and two postseason matches, marking the first time four MLS matches will be broadcast on English-language network television since 2002.
The NBC family of networks will also broadcast four US national team matches, including two on NBC.
“That was a big part of our decision to move forward with [NBC],” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said at a press conference on Wednesday shortly before the US-Mexico friendly at Lincoln Financial Field. “We think Major League Soccer and US Soccer are ready for prime time and ready for network television.
“We had those windows years ago, but frankly, we weren’t able to support it,” he added. “We didn’t have the audiences that warranted us being on network television. I think we’re ready.”
Jon Miller, the president of programming of NBC Sports, also joined Garber during the press conference, and insisted that NBC is encouraged by recent ratings for MLS and US matches on other networks, and that the sport’s relatively young, upscale audience is an ideal demographic for advertisers.
He also asserted that NBC has plans for two-and-a-half hours of programming surrounding MLS games, which will include pregame and postgame shows. Broadcasters and in-studio commentators have not been selected, but Miller said the network has been inundated with requests since the decision was made public on Wednesday.
The biggest draw to NBC, however, could be the Summer Olympics in London in 2012, when NBC will likely steal the spotlight from other networks for roughly a month. Miller said the network intends to promote the league and schedule matches in those moments, giving MLS a potentially huge boost in markets they may have struggled to reach in the past.
“We’re going to try and get games on some of those weekends when the NBC Sports Network has Olympic programming, and we can throw right into live Major League Soccer games,” Miller said. “That’s the kind of lead-in and promotional platform that [MLS] probably hasn’t seen in while, and that’s one of the benefits that we think we bring to the table.”
Miller added that MLS will be regularly promoted during NBC’s other programming, giving the league more opportunities to reach casual soccer fans or potentially new fans that currently watch other sports programming on NBC.
“We won’t just be promoting Major League Soccer inside soccer games. We’ll be promoting Major League Soccer inside Notre Dame football games, the NHL, Indy Car, PGA Tour golf, obviously the Olympics next summer,” Miller said. “We’ll be able to reach the casual fan and I think that’s the way you really grow your base.
“When you have a sports network and a major broadcast network where you can promote across different platforms, you’re reaching a lot of different people,” he added. “That’s really part of the strategy we have to bring in more people, educate more people and, quite honestly, serve the fan.”