NBC Sports spends most of the four years between Summer Olympics watching the U.S. women’s soccer team from afar.
Yes, the network’s Spanish-language siblings at Telemundo have Women’s World Cup rights, and that helped get a handful of simulcasts on NBCSN this summer. But the English rights to every game the U.S. women play outside of the Olympics are held by ESPN (friendlies) and Fox (friendlies, Concacaf tournaments and the World Cup).
It won’t be long now before NBC’s time comes around again. The Olympics are less than a year away — the soccer competition officially will start July 22 — and Concacaf’s qualifying tournament will take place Jan. 28-Feb. 9 in Houston; Edinburg, Tex.; and suburban Los Angeles.
Also on deck Thursday is one of the few pre-qualifying friendlies the U.S. women will play under new head coach Vlatko Andonovski. It’s a big one, too: Andonovski’s debut comes against old rival Sweden, at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus (7:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1 and TUDN). The Americans then will play Costa Rica in Jacksonville on Sunday (8 p.m., ESPN2 and TUDN).
Behind the scenes, NBC is getting ready for its turn. Gary Zenkel, president of NBC’s Olympics unit, told The Inquirer that soccer is “extremely high up” the network’s hierarchy of the Olympics’ cornucopia of sports.
“In the case of the women, like a bunch of different team sports where there is the potential for success here, it’s a huge priority for us,” Zenkel said.
As with the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, NBC will benefit from the boost in interest that comes with the Americans being reigning World Cup champions. The kickoff times will be challenging because of the 13-hour time difference between Tokyo and the U.S. east coast, but the women’s team’s rabid fan base will want to know everything that’s going on.
If NBC gets lucky (or throws its weight around), the fans could end up not suffering too much. A 9 p.m. kickoff in Tokyo is 7 a.m. here. An early-afternoon kickoff there would be late-night here — and prime time on the U.S. west coast.
Although NBC hasn’t finalized its broadcaster lineup yet, (that usually doesn’t happen until much closer to the event), you can expect the network’s lead soccer play-by-play voice, Arlo White, to be on the call for U.S. games.
“It’s one of the highlights of my career, genuinely, because I know the interest in the women’s team,” White said. “They’ve come such a long way since I started with them in London 2012 — that epic 4-3 semifinal over Canada at Old Trafford, and then the Carli Lloyd final at Wembley in front of 80,000 against Japan. They’ve subsequently won two World Cups, and they’re so significant in a sporting context, but also a cultural context."
The two contexts have never been far from each other, and likely won’t be next year. The federal judge presiding over the women’s players’ equal pay lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation has set a trial date for early May. So there will be no lack of stories for White and his colleagues to tell.
“To be around that squad, and around the individuals in it — and we are granted great access to an Olympic Games, to pick their brains, to talk about the games, to talk about their personalities and their stories — it’s something I absolutely treasure, and thoroughly look forward to," White said.
NBC might also have a U.S. men’s soccer team to feature for the first time since 2008. That squad’s failure to qualify for the last two Olympics isn’t the highest-profile failure of the men’s program right now, but it has gotten plenty of attention in its own right. Because Olympic men’s soccer is for the under-23 age group, both the qualifying and the tournament matter for youth prospects.
If the U.S. men can end the drought, it will be valuable experience for up-and-coming young players. The Union would especially benefit, as four players are capable of making the squad: goalkeeper Matt Freese, defenders Mark McKenzie and Auston Trusty, and midfielder Brenden Aaronson.
“Big tournament experience on the world stage, you can’t buy that experience,” White said. “If the U.S. could get there, it would be absolutely fantastic for them. And they need to be there — they need to represent Concacaf, overcome Mexico. Anytime you can overcome Mexico at any age group, it’s a notch on the belt.”
And of course, NBC would benefit, too. The network said in late July that its ad sales for Tokyo 2020 are pacing ahead of Rio 2016, which banked $1.2 billion with far better event times. A run by the U.S. men’s team would be a nice bonus.
“It’s always disappointing when a U.S. team does not qualify in a sport that is gaining as much momentum in this country as soccer is,” Zenkel said. “But we’re cautiously optimistic that [they] will be back, and hopefully will succeed.”