Away from his weekly duties as an analyst at the NBC Sports Premier League studios, Kyle Martino is perfectly relaxed in his out-of-studio attire, soaking in the Austin sun at the NBC Sports Lawn at SXSW. As a gaggle of soccer fans watch the Southampton/Stoke tilt nearby, he updates the @NBCSportsSoccer Twitter feed, cold beer at the ready (it is SXSW, so an early tipple isn’t out of the question here). Martino’s easygoing nature is evident in conversation and is usually on full display with his broadcast partners, but as the lone American on the team, he is acutely aware that the white hot light of expectation is often cast his way.
“It really is the idea that my 100% needs to be 120%,” said Martino. “I have to put in a strong effort every day because everyone's waiting for the American to slip up.”
An American, as a pundit in arguably the top soccer league in the world, demanded both preparation and the understanding that trust was meant to be earned, not given. Though Martino is a true student of the game, and had a nice professional and US national team career, he never took any of that for granted.
“Before the first season there was an incredible over-studying and an incredible concentration on basically learning the language of the game,” noted Martino. “I think once I earned my stripes and proved that I was going to respect the league and put the work in, then I could relax — and everyone could relax — and realize that it doesn't matter what your accent is, where you come from, our soccer audience is smart enough to know it's not what it sounds like when you say it, it's what you actually say.”
Trust is a recurring theme, not just with Martino’s stewardship of the league, but with NBC Sports as well. With a new six-year $950m renewal last August between the league and broadcaster, it is clear that the Premier League feels that they have a valuable partner in bringing top-tier soccer to the American viewing public.
According to The Wall Street Journal in 2015, Comcast-owned NBC Sports had an average of 563,000 viewers across all channels (NBC often shows live games on other stations), a 19 per cent increase from the year prior and a 150 per cent increase from 2012, when Fox and ESPN had the Premier League deal. Major League Soccer (MLS), by comparison, averaged around 200,000 on FoxSports1 and 250,000 on ESPN per game. Additionally, fans streamed 139m live minutes of NBC coverage via their Live Extra platform, a 44 per cent increase.
Though the numbers are far behind more “traditional” American sports such as football and baseball, Martino believes that there is room at the table for everyone.
“What's difficult in our country is the incumbents (such as the NFL, MLB and NBA), and trying to gain market share against those enormous sports that have a big head start and a lot of manpower and heritage to fight against,” said Martino. “I think the reality is, and soccer fans are seeing it, it's not mutually exclusive. You can be a (New York) Giants fan and an Arsenal fan at the same time. That's one of the reasons the Premier League is working so well is it doesn't ask you to choose, it doesn't butt up against a lot of other sports rights.”
For all of the strong metrics, Martino acknowledged that the broadcast style manages to combine both respect for the game and inspiration from NBC Sports producers, who have deep expertise in sports storytelling for a US audience, through the NFL and Olympic Games.
“We have taken on the Premier League in an ambitious way that no one thought possible, to cover every single game, to deliver a game that's in another country, to connect a broadcast team in a stadium in England with a broadcast team in a studio in Stamford, Connecticut, make it seamless and deliberate in a way that's commensurate with other sports, that our American fans love to enjoy, but in a way where we tweak it enough that it feels authentic, new, fresh and it's what a hardcore soccer fan and a new soccer fan can both enjoy at the same time,” said Martino.
What also seems to be helping is the relatively young age of the Premier League audience in the US, around 38 years old and a new generation of fans who see soccer as part of their sports viewing of choice.
“I'm probably that generation who are having kids where the background noise is the Premier League or Major League Soccer,” noted Martino. “That ends up being a very powerful tool, the sport by osmosis where you like what your dad and mom like, and that's another tool that's helping build this game. The reality is, the hardcore soccer fan doesn't have the chip on their shoulder that they used to about having to prove that this is an important sport and we should like it. It's here, and everyone knows it.”
As for the future prospects of MLS, Martino is certainly bullish, but it will take some more work both on and off the pitch.
“There's a lot of momentum building that once we open the financial floodgates, I don't think, because of the stability of the league, it will be detrimental like it's been in the past,” said Martino. “The product on the field will be, as (NYCFC star) Frank (Lampard) is saying, the next big way to get the television rights to go up, to get more viewers, to really start to be able to fuel this thing and make it a major league commensurate with these other sports that have incredible budgets.”
Martino also pointed out how important the prudent approach has been for the league, despite grumblings from part of the fan base.
“The single entity and financial handcuffs aspect of the business plan for Major League Soccer was absolutely integral and necessary for not making the mistakes of the past. As much as hardcore soccer fans hate that approach and want relegation and all these things, it was a necessary way to not get top-heavy and topple like the NASL (when the original version of the league folded in 1984) did,” said Martino.
“I give (MLS commissioner) Don Garber a lot of credit for making difficult decisions and unpopular decisions to get the sport to this point.”