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NBC putting its faith in soccer

Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard could show up on NBCSN’s Premier League n super/associated press

Call it a reversal of fields of sorts. While the Patriots were in London last week, marching over the Rams at Wembley Stadium and fulfilling their duty in the NFL's relentless effort to promote the ultimate American sport overseas, a deal was announced stateside that could go a long way toward enhancing the prominence of the sport most of the world regards as the real "football.''

NBC and the English Premier League announced a three-year, $250 million deal Sunday that makes the network the exclusive rights-holder in the United States to broadcast matches from the world's top soccer league. The deal takes effect in 2013-14.


NBC, which will take over the rights from Fox and ESPN, plans to broadcast every match from the EPL either on television or streaming online, with the majority airing on the fledgling but promising NBC Sports Network. Matches will also air on NBC and at least two other networks.

Since Comcast and NBC Universal rebranded the network previously known as Versus as NBC Sports Network in January, they have gradually been building a portfolio of properties in an attempt to cut into ESPN's dominance of sports cable television.

The NHL lockout has left a void in the schedule, but NBCSN did have several events from the London Olympics, it factors into a recent deal with Formula One racing, and it has Major League Soccer broadcasts to complement the EPL.

"The Premier League is the preeminent soccer league in the world, and is on the cusp of exponential popularity growth here in the US," NBC Sports Group chairman Mark Lazarus said after the deal was announced. "We think we're acquiring a set of assets that has unique affluent male appeal that's very attractive to advertisers and attractive to cable operators.''

It seems that soccer has been on the cusp of exponential growth as a television sports property multiple times, most notably after the US men's team reached the Round of 16 in the 1994 World Cup. But there are indications that soccer truly is growing here; Forbes recently reported that the average attendance for MLS games is 18,807, highest in league history.


Perhaps the NHL's third labor battle since 1994 will open the door for soccer to nudge it aside and join the Big Four in the United States. And it will be fascinating to check back several years down the road to see whether the EPL catches on as a television sport here to a greater degree than our football does in Europe.

Man of letters

A tip of the keyboard to Paul Flannery, who began a high-profile gig as an NBA columnist for SB Nation this week after spending the past couple of years as WEEI's Celtics reporter. Flannery built a loyal following at WEEI with thoughtful, well-written takes, especially in long form, something that isn't easy to do in a market that increasingly favors instant overreaction in place of well-considered analysis . . . To the surprise of no one who had the good fortune of witnessing his passion for sports on a daily basis, Bob Ryan's definition of retirement differs from the common interpretation. While he is no longer a full-time Globe employee, he still writes a Sunday column nearly every week, and if you were watching NBA TV Tuesday night around 6 p.m., you probably saw the debut of his newest assignment. Ryan, who began covering the NBA for the Globe in 1969, is putting his unmatched institutional memory of the league (Google "Bob Ryan, 1972 NBA Draft'' if you require entertaining evidence of the depths of his recall) to great use as an occasional essayist on the network. Ryan's first essay was a three-minute-plus preview of the new season. Looking forward to more, especially the essays that take a look back . . . Ryan, of course, is also a frequent panelist on ESPN's "Around The Horn,'' which celebrates its 10th anniversary Friday. A couple of fun stats from the debate program: There have been 2,217 episodes, with Woody Paige having the most "wins,'' 424. Ryan, Paige, Jay Mariotti, and T.J. Simers were the panelists on the Nov. 4, 2002, premiere. There have been 29 panelists all-time, including several with Boston ties, among them Ryan, the Globe's John Powers, and former Globe writers Jackie MacMullan, Michael Holley, Michael Smith, and Ron Borges.


Solid baseball lineup

This is not a jab at MLB Network's in-season programming, because save for the grating "Intentional Talk,'' it gets just about everything right. Yet unlike other league-specific networks, MLB may actually improve when its sport is out of season. Its offseason programming lineup includes the return of the superb, statistics-centric "Clubhouse Confidential'' Monday at 5:30 p.m. It's daily "Hot Stove'' program will move from evenings to mornings beginning Nov. 12 at 9 a.m., and will feature contributions by writers from the promising Sports On Earth website, including Joe Posnanski. And the network's signature show, "MLB Tonight,'' will for the first time air nightly throughout the offseason . . . Proving yet again that his sense of sports history runs parallel to his proximity to the athletes who made it, fawning ESPN studio host Stuart Scott introduced analyst Steve Young Monday night as the greatest quarterback in 49ers history. All these days later, there must be somebody somewhere whose eyes are still glued to the television, waiting for the phrase, ". . . except, obviously, for Joe Montana."


Chad Finn can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.