In praise of NBC's "Breakaway Live" experiment

The format broadcasters use to show football matches is undergoing some interesting innovation in the USA

Posted by Tom Leach on January 1, 2015

It’s rare to see a broadcaster try something truly innovative in sports coverage, but this morning as I dragged myself out of bed I was intrigued by a new format NBCSN was trying out for covering the English Premier League.

It’s common for there to be multiple Premier League games going on at the same time. Today 9 games simultaneously kicked off at 3.00pm UK time (10.00am EST). Normally, NBCSN (or Fox Soccer before them) would have picked one of those games to broadcast in full. The criteria for deciding which of those 9 games to broadcast is probably based on which game is likely to draw the biggest audience but also, as football is still an up-and-coming sport in the USA, on which game is likely to be the most entertaining to watch.

Of course this is problematic. From NBC’s perspective, betting on one game out of the 9 available is just that - a bet. Sometimes the game they choose to broadcast turns out to be a dull 0-0 draw, hardly the best shop window for English Football and hardly likely to attract new American fans. Even if the games are nominally “exciting”, there will be periods when one team is trying to keep possession or perhaps there is a dull spell with few goalscoring chances. It’s actually not that common for a game to be an end-to-end thriller for the full 90 minutes. If you’re NBC and your goal is to sell Premier League football to the suspicious American public then these lulls in games still present problems.

This is where NBC’s “Breakaway Live” format gets interesting. It works something like this: Instead of broadcasting just one of the 9 available games, all 9 games are “multiplexed” into a single live or near-live broadcast. So as moments of action happen at different games across the UK, the guys with ADD in the NBC gallery are constantly cutting from game to game covering those moments, with Rebecca Lowe introducing each segue. Though I’ve not watched it, I’m told the format very much resembles NFL RedZone (which is possibly where NBC got the idea).

And you know what? It’s actually pretty compelling to watch, a bit like edited highlights but live. It reminds me most of the Match of the Day format used on the last day of the season when the fates of teams depend not only on their respective results but the results of their neighbours in the table. I can see this being much more of interest to the drive-by neutral sports fan in US (whom I’m guessing NBC are trying to attract) as the action is constant and hard to look away from. So in that regard this is a shrewd move by NBC.

There are some caveats though. The hardcore Premier League fan with an affiliation to a specific team is going to enjoy this less, and I have to admit that had Spurs been playing as part of the “Breakaway Live” coverage this morning I can imagine I’d have become frustrated (though with the way Spurs have been playing this season, a distraction might have actually been quite welcome). Indeed there seemed to be a fair amount of negative reaction to the format on Twitter with “this is annoying - stay with one game” being the most common reaction. Though a lot of this will the usual neophobe change aversion, NBC need to be careful that they don’t alienate the fans they have already attracted by trying to appeal to those they’re still working on. Yes - you can always use their Live Extra smartphone app to watch any of the games live in full, but as one chap pointed out to me on Twitter this does little for those watching in bars, friend’s houses etc.

It will be interesting to see if NBC persevere with the “Breakaway Live” format and for how long. To succeed I suspect they will need to offer something to placate more hardcore fans. Perhaps offer both - “Breakaway Live” coverage on NBCSN but paired with coverage of a game in full on one of NBC’s affiliates.

I hope they do persevere though as it’s good to see some innovation in this space. Plus, given the choice between watching “Breakaway Live” and yet another live Arsenal game, I’d choose “Breakway Live” every time.

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