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Cover Story: Global Goal

7/19/2009 2:03 AM Eastern

As kids kick soccer balls across freshly cut fields throughout America this summer, a different set of players is preparing for the biggest soccer tournament in the world.

When the 2010 World Cup starts in South Africa next year, it will be the most-watched television event on the planet, dwarfing the audiences for the Super Bowl (98.7 million) and the record-breaking 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics (214 million).

U.S. national team captain Landon DonovanThe U.S. rights-holders to the quadrennial event, ESPN and Univision, are preparing a blowout of shows, documentaries and specials leading up to the global tournament on a variety of screens. And soccer-centric services such as Fox Soccer Channel and sister service Fox Sports en Español, as well as Spanish/English hybrid network Gol TV, are also firming up their game plans.

All are banking on the action from South Africa to draw more eyeballs than in 2006, when Italy’s 5-3 penalty-kick triumph against France in the final -- think the Zinedine Zidane head butt-- drew an estimated 715 million viewers worldwide, capping a tournament that FIFA, the sport’s international governing body, estimated drew a global cume audience of 26.3 billion. In April, FIFA said the worldwide TV rights sold for more than $3 billion.

In the States, though, soccer has served up a mixed performance. While the sport has amassed an impressively large following among school-age kids and young adults — it’s third in team sports, behind baseball and basketball — it has failed to ignite with TV audiences in the U.S. the way American football does, in part due to the level of play and lack of advertising revenue and investment by team owners. Indeed, domestic professional circuit Major League Soccer has averaged 255,000 viewers on ESPN2 this season, down 12% from its 2008 average.

But while soccer may not spark the fervor it does in most places on Earth, ESPN and Univision are starting now to spark interest across many platforms in the U.S. “Is there a bigger viewing base for soccer? Yes. But the U.S. is still a bit of a fair-weather nation. I think a lot of people say, 'Show us you’re good and we’ll watch,’ ” said Lee Berke, principal in sports consultancy LHB Sports and Entertainment. “Then, you’ll see the ratings go along for the ride.”

Fan interest seems to be building. This year, the U.S. national team gained respect among more fans with its strong performance in the Confederations Cup warm-up in South Africa, where the Yanks upset world No. 1 Spain and led Brazil 2-0 at halftime of the final before folding to that soccer powerhouse. The June 28 final garnered almost 3.95 million viewers for ESPN, making it the most-watched non-World Cup match showcasing the U.S. men’s national team in tournament history. ESPN executive vice president of content John Skipper has said he would be surprised if next year’s tournament isn’t the highest-rated World Cup in the U.S.

Said Berke: “The national team does increasingly well on TV when it advances in tournaments. We’ve seen that with the Confederations Cup, the Gold Cup and the World Cup in 2002, when the team made its run to the quarterfinals.”

Univision and ESPN reportedly paid FIFA some $425 million for World Cup events from 2007-2014, with the Spanish-language media company and the sports programmer spending $325 million and $100 million, respectively, for the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, as well as the women’s tournaments in 2007 and 2011, plus 11 other competitions and events.

For ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC, the big change going into South Africa centers around studio coverage, which for the first time will originate completely from the host nation (see page 12). Coverage in the days leading up to the June 11 to July 11 matches will involve SportsCenter segments, nightly World Cup Live, pre-game, halftime and post-match shows, as well as additional studio programming and World Cup-branded segments. That totals more than 65 hours of coverage, from a pair of sets in and around Johannesburg.

Chris Fowler, Bob Ley and Mike Tirico will serve as the on-site World Cup studio hosts, with ESPN’s “game around the game” approach to South Africa 2010 encompassing live and taped segments that will air on ESPN International’s 14 localized versions of SportsCenter in eight different languages across the world.

ESPN is in the process of lining up interviews with all 46 of the living players that have scored in the World Cup final for a documentary, said vice president of programming and acquisitions Scott Guglielmino, who is heading up the programmer’s World Cup strategies. The footage will also be edited into vignettes to be sprinkled throughout the programmer’s linear and digital platforms.

Overall, Guglielmino said South Africa will provide “a rich backdrop for our coverage and stories of the people, their culture, as well as fans coming to a nation that is just 15 years removed from apartheid.”

As for the games themselves, ESPN and its sister services will provide all 64 matches in HD, while broadband service ESPN360.com will feature the contests in multiple languages. Given the six-hour time differential between the East Coast and South Africa, game windows are scheduled from 7 a.m. to 9: 30 a.m. (ET), 9:30 a.m. to noon and 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., including a 20- to 30-minute pre-match show.

Guglielmino said ESPN is assembling “world-class talent on air and for our coverage from the field.”

ESPN will cover the World Cup draw live on Dec. 4 and then things will shift into gear in the new year from a promotional perspective. “Our marketing will kick off and there will be tune-in initiatives,” he said. “There will be friendlies, involving both the U.S. national team and non-U.S. games.”

ESPN Inc. will also televise the World Cup in Brazil (ESPN Brazil) and in the ESPN Star Sports (ESS) territories of India, Pakistan, The Maldives, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and the Middle East.

Univision, which was the first U.S. network to air the World Cup live back in 1970, is also taking a multimedia approach. For the first time, game telecasts on Univision (all 64 matches) and TeleFutura, (eight simulcasts), as well as encore coverage on Galavisión, will be available in the high-definition format. Moreover, Univision.com and Univision Movil will stream all of the matches live, while video-on-demand renditions of the matches will also be available via on-demand platforms.

“We’re still determining the windowing for our VOD,” said Univision Network executive vice president and operating manager Alina Falcon, who said World Cup content was a key component in the various retransmission-consent deals the company reached with distributors in 2009. “This will give fans a chance to watch the games at their leisure, or relive all the excitement.”

To that end, Univision executive vice president of network sales and marketing Peter Lazarus said the company has already closed sponsorship packages with FIFA sponsors Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile, Anheuser-Busch, McDonalds and Coca-Cola. With those and other deals in place, Univision has about 65% of its World Cup inventory accounted for.

Both Falcon and Lazarus said sponsors will have the opportunity to be involved with the Hispanic media leader’s morning, news and entertainment programming which will incorporate World Cup features and elements during the tournament, or host special editions.

”Our viewers want to feel the excitement, the passion and celebrate the World Cup. That’s what we look to do throughout out schedule,” said Falcon.

Though they don’t hold any game rights, Fox Soccer Channel and sister service Fox Sports en Español want to serve as “hubs of information before and after the actual matches,” said Fox Sports International executive vice president and general manager David Sternberg. FSC will air a daily show titled Ticket to South Africa, plus in-depth coverage on Sky Sports News and Fox Soccer Report. Its Spanish-language sibling will offer new programming and call-in shows. “We will provide the interviews, analysis, and the debates to enable viewers to immerse themselves fully in the tournament,” said Sternberg.

In addition to more World Cup qualifiers — FSC will air 50 Asian and European matches in all this year, while FSE is home to 20 — the English-language service will whet futbol fans’ appetite with an eight-part series this fall chronicling great club rivalries, as well as International Football Rivalries such as Argentina-Brazil, England-Germany and Greece-Turkey. Both networks will present a History of the World Cup series, kicking off during the first quarter.

Similarly, there will be English- and Spanish-language versions of Passport to South Africa/Pasaporte a Sudafrica that will examine and preview the eight, four-team groups, determined during the Dec. 4 draw. The series, set to kick off in the first quarter, will conclude with a ninth installment, affording a complete tourney overview.

Gol’s effort, headed by a crew on the ground in the host nation, will be highlighted by its 2010 Report: 40 Days in South Africa. The network plans to provide news coverage, replete with team and player profiles and interviews, game analysis and previews, while also providing a sense of the nation and fans, several times daily during the days leading up to and during the Cup.

In addition to a host of World Cup qualifiers, Gol TV, which makes its feed available in both English and Spanish for positioning on either sports or Hispanic tiers, will continue to present FIFA Futbol Mondial on Friday nights at 8 p.m. (ET) with updates on the World Cup.

“We’re also developing our interactive strategies. We want our experts to connect with fans through a variety of social networks,” said vice president of marketing Didi Montiel.

The U.S. and Mexico will meet in qualifying matches beginning Aug. 12 at 4 p.m. (ET) in Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. The U.S. has never won a World Cup qualifier there (0-12-1). Their Feb. 11 CONCACAF qualifier, won 2-0 by the U.S. in Columbus, Ohio, netted 1.2 million viewers on ESPN2, its most-watched World Cup qualifier to date. On Univision, the same match drew some 5.9 million, according to Nielsen data.

“At Univision, we don’t speak those words,” Falcon joked, when queried about how the programmer would fare if Mexico didn’t make it. “Obviously, we’d love to see them make it. We’re optimistic they will.”

Asked if its coverage might be impacted if the Yanks weren’t playing, Guglielmino said, “we’d miss out on U.S. stories. But our overall coverage would be the same. This is the world’s single premier sporting event. We plan to show the tournament through a global prism.”

Still, having the U.S. involved would certainly be a boost. “As a U.S.-centric event, the Confederations Cup was a positive from the team’s perspective. [U.S. captain] Landon Donovan said we’re not playing for respect. We’re playing to win. I embrace that attitude,” said Guglielmino.

 

SOCCER SURGE
English-language World Cup ratings for 2006 were up greatly over 2002:

Network Year Telecasts Rating Households Viewers 2-Plus
*Cable ratings
†National ratings
‡ 2002 games from Korea and Japan aired mainly in early morning.
SOURCE: Nielsen Media Research data
ESPN* 2002‡ 24 1.1 963,000 1.3 M
ESPN 2006 21 1.9 1.75 M 2.3 M
% Change     73% 82% 78%
ESPN2* 2002‡ 34 0.6 489,000 651,000
ESPN2 2006 31 1.0 919,000 1.15 M
% Change     67% 88% 76%
ABC 2002‡ 10 1.4 1.46 M 1.98 M
ABC 2006 12 3.1 3.45 M 4.79 M
% Change     121% 136% 142%
September