ESPN’s Cup Will Run Over

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While French soccer icon Zinedine Zidane’s head-butt of Italian defender Marco Materazzi in overtime during the final will be the enduringly sad tableau for World Cup 2006, ESPN executives in Bristol, Conn., could be forgiven for being out of their heads with soccer for other reasons, though.

Not only did the World Cup provide strong ratings and viewership for ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC’s live coverage of the 64-match tourney (see story below), but The Walt Disney Co. networks are about to up the ante with futbol.

Scott Guglielmino, ESPN vice president, programming said the company expects to complete a new contract for rights to Major League Soccer and the U.S. men’s and women’s national teams with Soccer United Marketing, the domestic league’s marketing arm that controls all of those properties, within the next few weeks.

The negotiations, which the parties have been close to finalizing, are expected to yield the first-ever rights deal for MLS. The league has been airing on the Disney networks in a contract that will expire after this season as part of a deal struck with SUM for the 2002 and 2006 World Cups and the 2003 Women’s World Cups. SUM had paid about $40 million for the recent World Cup rights to FIFA, the sport’s governing body.

Guglielmino wouldn’t discuss pricing, but noted that the exit by the U.S. side in the group stage at the World Cup doesn’t diminish Disney’s enthusiasm for the sport.

“I’ll put in the missed opportunity category. The U.S. team’s going out early is not something we’re changing our strategy over,” he said. “We’re committed to soccer.”

Among its many soccer holdings: ESPN2 this year renewed the rights to the UEFA Champions League, while ESPN Deportes will air Euro 2008 qualifiers.

Disney also ponied up $100 million last year for a host of FIFA events, including the rights to the 2007 Women’s World Cup, the 2010 and 2014 Men’s World Cups, and youth tournaments, which Guglienlmino said could wind up airing in part on college network ESPNU.

With the women’s World Cup set for China, likely in September, Guglielmino expects that the Disney networks will present all 32 matches live, despite a 12-hour time differential to the East Coast. Disney will also stream them on broadband as part of its rights deal with FIFA.

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