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How the Premier League grew into the biggest soccer league in the United States

When Liverpool hosted Arsenal two days before Christmas Day, a new Premier League record was set in the United States.

NBC Sports, the U.S. broadcaster that has held exclusive access to all of England’s top-flight matches since 2013, attracted more viewers for a Premier League match than it ever had before.

NBC Sports reported that the match averaged 1.96million English-language viewers across its main TV channel, its digital platform and Peacock, a streaming service and subsidiary of NBCUniversal Media Group. This was an increase of 40,000 viewers from NBC’s previous record of 1.92 million, which was set when Arsenal played Manchester United in January 2023.

It led to data from Nielsen being compiled by World Soccer Talk and sports media analyst Larry Johnson that the Premier League had become the most-watched soccer league in the U.S., overtaking Mexico’s Liga MX.

The analysis highlighted that Liga MX had consistently been top for several decades, helped by the large Hispanic population in the U.S., but that, in 2023, it had been toppled for the first time.

They found that when it came to TV and streaming, the Premier League’s average audience was higher than Liga MX’s.

“The Premier League has grown exponentially in the U.S. since 2013,” Justin Beitler, director of global media rights consulting at Octagon, tells The Athletic. “Rights fees are now worth nearly 5.5 times what they were when NBC first acquired the rights before the 2013-14 season. 

“It speaks to NBC’s commitment to prioritising the Premier League and helping the Premier League and the sport grow in this market with a production that is second to none. It is one of NBC’s big bets as it begins to shift more and more content over to Peacock, while still maintaining a foothold on linear cable and free-to-air.” 

The fact all of NBC’s five most-watched matches occurred in 2023, coinciding with the Premier League opening an office in New York last year, could not be a more positive sign for the league, especially after agreeing a six-year deal worth £2billion ($2.55bn) with NBC in 2021 to extend its broadcast rights.

Most-watched PL matches on NBC

Match Viewership* Date

Liverpool v Arsenal

1.96 million

December 23, 2023

Arsenal v Manchester United

1.92 million

January 22, 2023

Liverpool v Manchester United

1.77 million

December 17, 2023

Arsenal v Manchester United

1.48 million

September 3, 2023

Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester City

1.47 million

February 5, 2023

*According to figures released by NBC

The popularity of English football in the U.S. only seems to be growing, and the Premier League sought to capitalise on that by hosting its first ‘Summer Series’ pre-season tournament in 2023, with Chelsea, Brentford, Brighton, Fulham, Newcastle United and Aston Villa all taking part.

Matches were held in Philadelphia, Orlando, Atlanta, New Jersey and Maryland, and more than 260,000 supporters attended. Due to the European Championship and Copa America taking place this summer, it will be difficult to stage a similar event until 2025.

English football’s success in the U.S., notwithstanding the expected future growth, has attracted American investors to the Premier League. Nine top-flight clubs are under American control, either at 100 per cent or with a majority stake, including Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Aston Villa.

Chelsea and Fulham at FedExField in Maryland last summer (Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

Should 777’s deal to buy Everton go through, exactly half of the league’s clubs will be controlled by American owners.

“Given it’s the world’s most valuable and popular domestic league, it shouldn’t come as a shock that the Premier League is the most-watched soccer league in the U.S.,” adds Beitler. “Liga MX, despite its popularity among Spanish speakers, has not reached English-speaking football fans in the same way.

“However, with more games broadcasted across linear TV for Liga MX, the total ‘consumption’, or viewer hours, for Liga MX is still superior to the Premier League. And that’s without clear visibility into the viewership performance of either property on its streaming platforms, which could shift the picture.”

According to Nielsen’s data on Liga MX and the Premier League’s viewership on Univision, a Spanish-language free-to-air American TV network, between 2022 and 2023, the average audience for Liga MX was around 900,000. The Premier League’s figures were just short of 800,000.

In 2023, however, those figures reversed. Liga MX’s audience fell to just over 600,000, while the Premier League had remained relatively flat.

Although the Premier League is growing, it is still a significant way behind even coming close to matching the viewing figures for National Football League (NFL) fixtures. It is unlikely it ever will compete with American football.

“The NFL is more dominant on U.S. linear television than ever before,” adds Beitler. “A reported 93 out of the top 100 broadcasts of 2023 were NFL games. According to Nielsen and Sportico, that’s up from 85 of the top 100 in 2022, and 64 in 2018.”

According to Nielsen’s analysis, and when compared to the 1.92million who watched Liverpool vs Arsenal on December 23, 28.6million watched the Philadelphia Eagles play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on ESPN in a play-off match on January 15.

This, however, is not an ESPN record — 31.2million people watched January 2023’s fixture between the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

But as the NFL continues to go from strength to strength, the Premier League will be hoping to capitalise on the next three years, which will see the U.S. host some of the biggest tournaments in men’s soccer.

The first, the Copa America, comes this year, before the U.S. hosts the revamped Club World Cup in 2025. These two events are the precursor to the 2026 World Cup, which will be hosted in the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

NBC’s most recent deal with the Premier League will run out in 2028, with Beitler believing this could favour England’s top flight when both parties return to the negotiating table.

Erling Haaland leads the new wave of Premier League stars (Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

“Signing a six-year deal has a few benefits, especially in the U.S.,” adds Beitler. “First, it took advantage of a fruitful time to be in the media rights market, which I’d argue is facing more headwinds now in 2024, when the Premier League would already be back in the market had it signed a shorter-term deal.”

For its domestic deals, the Premier League had been signing three-year deals with broadcasters, although the new cycle, starting in August and expiring at the end of the 2027-28 season, will be across four years. This is still shorter than NBC’s deal, which, Beitler says, works for both parties.

“The six-year timeframe gives NBC more incentive to produce and promote the league, knowing that they won’t have to worry about a renewal in the short term,” he adds. “CBS and ESPN were rumoured to be strong competitors for these rights, again a testament to how much the property has grown. 

“The deal ends in 2028, and will likely be negotiated one or two years out, allowing the Premier League to ride the wave of soccer popularity in the U.S. following the Club World Cup and World Cup.”

(Top photo: Visionhaus/Getty Images)

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