With much less fanfare -- and presumably far fewer vuvuzelas -- than last year in South Africa, ESPN is kicking off its coverage of another FIFA event today, the 2011 Women's World Cup from Germany.
The 16-team tourney, starting June 26 with Nigeria and France at 8:45 a.m. (ET) on ESPN2, marks the worldwide leader's fifth consecutive presentation of the Women's World Cup, including the 1999 event during which Brandi Chastain captured the cultural zeitgeist with her jersey-baring, penalty-kick winner over China on ABC. Chastain's former U.S. Women's National Team cohorts Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm and Brianna Scurry and coach Tony Tony DiCicco are on board to provide game and studio analysis.
This time around -- with the U.S. ranked No. 1 by FIFA, but not necessarily the favorite, ESPN and ESPN2 -- will air all 32 matches live and in high-definition. Broadband service ESPN3.com, now in some 70 million homes, will simulcast all of the matches, while ESPN's mobile platforms is scheduled to supply coverage of 26 of the games. All programming on ESPN and ESPN2 will also be available online through ESPNnetworks.com, which is accessible to fans who receive their video service from an affiliated provider. The worldwide leader's comprehensive news, highlights and information coverage will include, for the first time, pre-match, halftime and post-match shows, as well as World Cup-branded segments on SportsCenter, First Take and ESPNEWS.
Moreover, ESPN, for the first time, will present all of its studio coverage from the FIFA Women's World Cup from the host nation. Bob Ley, who helmed ESPN's studio coverage from the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, and Rebecca Lowe, ESPN UK's Barclays Premier League co-host, will oversee the WWC coverage. Much of the programming from Germany will originate from a mobile studio set, traveling throughout the country and originating from five cities -- Berlin, Dresden, Frankfurt, Heidelberg and Wolfsburg -- during the three-week competition, which concludes with the title match on July 17.
On the Spanish-language side of the net, Galavision, the cable cousin of broadcast networks Univision and Telemundo, will provide coverage of select matches, including all three U.S. Group C matches -- versus Korea DRP on June 28, Colombia on July 2 and Sweden July 6.
Speaking on a conference call with media on June 22, ESPN senior vice president and executive producer Jed Drake was asked what would be deemed a successful production and how ratings figured into that equation.
"There's always that twofold evaluation. One is our intrinsic read on how we did as a production team, and then inevitably, in the end more importantly, will be our ratings. But I do believe that the interest in the U.S. team is going to generate a lot of interest, and we're starting to feel that buzz now," he said. "I will tell you this - we have put in a lot of effort on this one, and we're doing some things that we didn't even consider doing in South Africa, and we've learned a lot from South Africa. We got a lot of very nice praise for what we did, and it was greatly appreciated. But we've learned a lot. We've applied that to what we're doing, and I've got to tell you, I think this thing that we're about to embark upon is just going to be a spectacular production."
Not surprisingly, Drake pointed to the performance of the red, white and blue as the key Nielsen trigger. "As far as the ratings, I do believe the X factor here of course is the U.S. team," he said.
During the 2007 tournament from China, with its 12-hour time difference to the East Coast, the U.S. was clobbered 4-0 in the semifinals by Germany, which is six hours ahead of that part of the country. Four years ago the tourney was played in September with ESPN averaging a 0.4 rating and 394,000 viewers for 11 matches and ESPN2 a 0.2 mark and 232,000 for 21 games. Combined, the programmer averaged a 0.2 rating and 288,000 watchers.
Ranked first by FIFA and the 2008 Olympic champion, the U.S. is certainly a top contender, but not the consensus choice to win the Cup. That designation belongs to the host nation, which won the 2007 event in China without conceding a goal.
The Teutonic titans are led by Birgit Prinz, the all-time WWC scoring leader with 14 goals. During a four-match warm-up, Germany topped the competition by a combined 15-0 count, including wins over North Korea and Norway by two and three goals. The Germans have lost only three times since 2009, but all have come to the Americans.
The U.S. needed to win a play-in series against Italy -- which took it on the chin 5-0 to Germany three weeks ago -- last November after losing to Mexico in CONCACAF qualifying, just to make the tourney. Last to arrive to the party, the side, coached by Pia Sundhage, features such notables as goal-scoring machine Abby Wambach and goaltender Hope Solo, plus veterans Shannon Boxx, Carli Lloyd, Heather Mitts and co-captain Christie Rampone.
Also on the roster: Alex Morgan, a striker who could become the face of the beautiful game Stateside, perhaps during the competition in Germany and in the years to come.
A strong showing by the U.S. is also viewed as critical to Women's Professional Soccer, the struggling domestic pro league.
The U.S. has been drawn into Group C, arguably this tournament's "Group of Death,' comprising FIFA's fifth- and eighth-ranked teams in Sweden and Korea, plus Colombia, which is only 31st in the hierarchy. Group A, which includes the home nation, Canada (FIFA's No. 6), France (No. 7) and Nigeria is also strong.
No. 3 Brazil, which has been the runner-up to the U.S. at the last two Olympics and Germany in China, is expected to make a deep run, led by five-team FIFA footballer of the year Marta. Japan ( No. 4), Norway (9) and England (10) round out the tourney's upper echelon.
ESPN will use three commentator teams for the 32 matches, fronted by Ian Darke, the programmer's lead futbol voice, and former U.S. Women's National Team captain Foudy, who will call the Germany vs. Canada match on Sunday, June 26, at 11 a.m. (ET) (ESPN/ESPN3.com), and the title match on Sunday, July 17, at 2 p.m. (ESPN/ESPN3.com).
Adrian Healey, a 2010 FIFA World Cup match commentator and the lead voice for MLS on ESPN, will pair with analyst Kate Markgraf on the second team. DiCicco will also serve as analyst on select matches, working with Healey. Versatile veteran Beth Mowins will pair with another former U.S. Women's National Team member Cat Whitehill as the third commentator team.
Mexico's Mónica González, Australia's Alicia Ferguson and Viola Odebrecht from Germany will work as studio analysts.
They will be joined by a late addition to the roster: Hamm. The top goal scorer and arguagly the most famous player in U.S. soccer history -- Landon Donovan supporters may differ -- Hamm will bring her acumen to the programmer's women's sports service, espnW. Throughout the tourney, Hamm will provide blog postings, insights and interviews for espnw.com along with select appearances on ESPN telecasts as a special contributor for espnW.
The service is looking to raise its profile with the WWC. It is hosting a viewing event for the U.S.-Korea match on June 28 in Manhattan's Times Square, outside of ABC's Good Morning America studios. Laura Gentile, vice president, espnW, will be among the officials in attendance.