Robbie Earle: How NBC have made America fall in love with the Premier League

For Robbie Earle, the former Port Vale, Wimbledon and Jamaica ace, the time has flown by. As projects go, this one has proved well worth embarking on.

“It was nine years ago that NBC called me and said they were going to try and win the US rights to the Premier League,” Earle tells The Set Pieces.

“We had a conversation and it was left until they won it. They bid without ever thinking they were going to win the rights.

“It was December 2012, I got a call from our producer to say we’d won the rights. We had six months to get the show on the road.”

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NBC had successfully won exclusive rights to show the Premier League on American TV, replacing Fox Sports and ESPN. For a footballer born in Stoke who’d had a good, if unremarkable, playing career to be one of the faces of that coverage represented a significant rise.

Earle’s 18-year career as a goalscoring midfielder included stints at just two clubs — Port Vale and Wimbledon — as well as international football for Jamaica, for who he scored for at the 1998 World Cup in France.

Upon retiring, he studied his coaching badges in England before switching to the media to take on radio work. He began as a pundit on BBC Radio 5 Live before being approached by Sky Sports to work on Goals on Sunday. After that it was ESPN and now he is into his 10th year as one of NBC’s key pundits for their Premier League coverage in the United States.

“I’m LA-based,” says the 57-year-old. “The shows are out of Connecticut, where the studio is, and I fly over two of every three weekends to do them. Depending on what the fixtures are, it could be Friday, Saturday, Sunday, maybe Monday. I fly back or stay in for the rest of the week and then come back to the West Coast. That’s on a regular rota through the whole of the season.

“The host [is] Rebecca Lowe, who worked in the UK for ESPN and is very much the front of the broadcast. The analysts started with myself, Robbie Mustoe and Kyle Martino, a former US international. A couple of years ago, Kyle moved on to other ventures so Tim Howard came in. Danny Higginbotham, who played for Stoke and Derby, comes in and helps our midweek coverage just to change the dynamics of the same voices and same people.

“In the UK, we have a commentary team of Graeme Le Saux and Lee Dixon. We’ve just had a change in the commentary. Arlo White left this summer and Peter Drury has come in as our lead commentator now.”

It is clear as he speaks that Earle feels he has landed the jackpot with his second career. The one significant drawback, though, is quite how unkind the wake-up times can be on his sleep schedule.

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“7.30am East Coast is 4:30am West Coast, which is 12.30pm – the early game – on a Saturday in the UK,” he winces. “We’ve got to be in the studio. Alarm goes off at 4:30am, maybe quarter to five, get into the studio by 5am or 5.15am. We get into the make-up studio where Rebecca is. We sit in the green room, chat through what broke at the weekend, what we’re going to talk about in our opening segments.

“We’ve got to get into the studio an hour before we go on air. We have to make sure we’re linked into the guys in the UK and make sure everything’s working as it should be. We generally do half an hour on air pre-game. Sometimes if it’s a big game we’ll do an hour or an hour and a half pre-game, so that’s an even earlier start…

“We tend to finish at 3pm West Coast time after the final game of the day. We do an hour of segments to film which go on social media or the website. It’s a pretty full-on day. You don’t get out the studio until 4.30pm. It’s a 12-hour shift from the morning to the afternoon.”

The United States has long flirted with becoming one of the next global football hubs, but it faces immense challenge from the more popular American sports – including their own rather different version of football. However, Earle has watched the growth of football, or ‘soccer,’ in the States first-hand.

“Authenticity is one of the strong buzzwords,” he states. “It’s about not dumbing it down for the viewer. It’s English football, we don’t call it English soccer. We stick to the English phrases. We try and make it as though it were made for an English broadcaster. There’s a broad spectrum of people you’re broadcasting to. We try and be as analytical as we can to show why things have happened – not just that they’ve happened.

“Our job is to tell the story and be honest. If Manchester City have had a bad day, we say Manchester City have had a bad day. We’re trying to grow the game and educate our viewers really, in terms of what the modern game is about, how tactics have changed and how processes have changed. The Premier League is such a great league for giving you storylines and headlines. We started out in 2013. Week on week, storylines just keep coming for us.”

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With new overseas Premier League broadcasters crawling out of the woodwork season after season, NCB know their product must continue to resonate with fans and offer something its competitors don’t. Earle is reflective about this and feels the channel is appropriately introspective.

“I think we’ve evolved and learned,” he says. “We have a review call every week on Thursday where we talk about the weekend that’s gone, review what we’ve done and where we could do better.

“There are plenty of American owners in the Premier League. They have often had a say and are generally very complimentary about how we present the league and their clubs to US fans.”

An insight into the intertwining of different stakeholders and their different priorities, perhaps.

“When I first came here, you never quite knew who was broadcasting the Premier League, when it was on,” Earle remembers. “It was a niche sport. I almost never saw football shirts. Since that time, it has become a must-watch. So many people now say it’s the start of their day. It’s helped bring families together who, at 7am in the morning on the East Coast, get up, sit in front of the telly, get their blankets and breakfast and sit and watch West Ham and Liverpool and Southampton and all these teams.

“There’s a new breed of fan who wants to be involved and finds a reason to support a club. The Philadelphia Eagles, a lot of their fans are Crystal Palace fans because they’re the Eagles. It’s really cool.

“Normally it’s all the American sports – NFL, NBA, hockey – and the Premier League is now standing up and taking its place among those sports.”

Though traditional American sports dominate TV listings and eagerly fix eyes upon television screens on a regular day in the States, they won’t have quite the same pull on 25 November. Sporting attention in the US will universally turn to football, as the States face England in Group B at the World Cup in Qatar. Echoes of 1950 and 2010 fill the soundwaves.

“In our studio we’ve got many ardent American fans,” Earle smirks. “I’m not sure me, Rebecca or Robbie Mustoe will be able to return to the studio if England don’t win that game. Robbie used to play with Gareth Southgate. These are healthy rivalries.

“The growth in appeal of the Premier League has ignited growth in appeal to football more generally. You would not believe if you went to the park at the weekend the number of kids playing football. It starts at 7am and every hour there’s a new set of kids.

“It’s becoming the sport that parents are pushing their kids towards.”

Robbie Earle: How NBC have made America fall in love with the Premier League
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