Pierre Moossa would have enough to do if he only had to measure the coronavirus’ impact on Stamford, Conn., where NBC Sports’ studios are located.
But NBC’s English Premier League soccer operation is so vast that Moossa, its coordinating producer, has to worry about the pandemic’s effect on both sides of the Atlantic.
When the Premier League planned its season restart, it significantly reduced the number of international broadcasters allowed at games in order to create social distancing. NBC, which paid nearly $1 billion to extend its rights deal through the 2021-22 season, is one of the networks allowed to stay.
So yes, you’ll hear the familiar voice of Arlo White when defending champion Manchester City hosts Arsenal in the second game of Wednesday’s season-resuming doubleheader (3:15 p.m., NBCSN). He’ll call that game with Graeme Le Saux, then work two games this weekend: West Ham-Wolverhampton on Saturday (12:30 p.m., NBC) with Lee Dixon, and Everton-Liverpool on Sunday (2 p.m., NBC) with Le Saux.
You’ll also see familiar faces on NBC’s studio coverage: host Rebecca Lowe and analysts Robbie Earle, Kyle Martino, and Robbie Mustoe.
But beyond that, much will be different. Games will be played behind closed doors, and NBC will use artificial crowd noise provided to the Premier League by EA Sports. Moossa wasn’t fond of the idea at first but said he’s done “a complete 180” after watching games with it.
“It did surprise me how much something that is not natural to the game itself … would make such a difference to the viewing experience,” he said.
For fans who don’t want to hear the fake crowd, a natural-sound feed will be available online.
The schedule of games will be dramatically different from the norm. Instead of having most kickoffs at the traditional time of 3 p.m. on Saturdays (10 a.m. here), there will be action every day but one from Friday through July 2.
That includes a quadrupleheader this Saturday, with games at 7:30 a.m. (Watford-Leicester City), 10 a.m. (Brighton-Arsenal), 12:30 p.m. (West Ham-Wolves) and 2:45 p.m. ET (Brighton-Crystal Palace). NBCSN will televise the first three, and the fourth will be streamed online via NBC’s streaming platforms Peacock and NBC Sports Gold.
It will be the first live sports event carried on Peacock, which launched for Comcast customers with X1 boxes on April 15 and will go nationwide on July 15. If you have an X1 box, you can access what will become Peacock’s premium streaming tier — which is where Premier League games will be — free of charge. For everyone else, NBC Sports Gold’s Premier League streaming package is $9.99 for the rest of the season.
The stakes are high for Comcast beyond just NBCSN and Peacock. Comcast also owns Sky, the British broadcaster and cable provider that has been English soccer’s No. 1 domestic outlet ever since the Premier League’s founding in 1992. If the season hadn’t resumed, Sky could have lost hundreds of millions of dollars. The Premier League said in early April its 20 teams could have lost a combined $1.25 billion.
To help get the money taps flowing again, every game for the rest of the season will be televised domestically. Believe it or not, that has never happened before. English soccer’s governing body has banned televising games in the 3 p.m. time slot since the 1960s as a way to protect attendance at lower-league games.
Sky will air 25 of its 64 games for free. There will be four games on the BBC — the flagship network’s first-ever Premier League broadcasts — and four streamed domestically by Amazon free of charge. Cable outlet BT Sport has the remaining 20 contests.
When White, Le Saux, and Dixon get to stadiums, they’ll have their temperatures taken. If anyone’s temperature is high, the crew will be pulled off the air and NBC will use the world feed.
Once inside the gates, the announcers will have to wear masks until air time, and they’ll be socially distanced. Moossa said the workspaces will be two to three times larger than the norm within English stadium’s often-cramped gantries.
White said he has “a lot of confidence in the protocols,” and he wasn’t just being hopeful. He fell ill in late March with symptoms that he realized may have been COVID-19. Fortunately, he recovered in a few days.
“I’m certainly not being cavalier in terms of social distancing and not breaking any guidelines in terms of quarantining and lockdown in the U.K.,” he said, “but I would say it affected my mindset slightly, going into it with the confidence that perhaps I had contracted the virus and kind of come through it.”
NBC’s studio will be easier to handle, with on-air and production staff properly spread out. But life won’t be easy for Lowe and Earle. They both live in California — Lowe in Sacramento, Earle in Los Angeles — and will be away from their families for extended periods. Lowe will fly back west after 10 days, while Earle will stay east for the rest of the Premier League season.
“I have already been assured on a number of occasions by the airline [of] what they are doing,” Lowe said of her travel plans. “I have confidence in really every part of the journey from my front door to the front door of where I’m staying.”
Both the coronavirus pandemic and the protests against racism in global soccer will get their share of air time. Players will wear the “Black Lives Matter” slogan in place of the names on their jerseys, and the Premier League will support all players who take a knee at games.
The protests are especially significant for Earle, who played in England for 18 years. He has been outspoken about racism in the country and the sport for decades.
“Those are huge steps for English football,” Earle said. “We have seen campaigns that have lasted maybe a weekend where we have had a little concentration on it, but things have tended to go away. … I feel as though this has got a different energy, a bigger determination to get things done.”