SBD/June 12, 2014/Media

ESPN Expecting To Draw In More Casual Soccer Fans During World Cup Coverage

U.S. soccer fans demand a higher level of commentary and production from networks
ESPN has dedicated "considerable resources to its the presentation of the FIFA World Cup and is betting there will be many more casual viewers" in the U.S. than during the '10 tournament, according to Bob Wolfley of the MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL. ESPN Senior VP & Exec Producer for the World Cup Jed Drake contends that since the '10 event in South Africa, the net "has helped melt" an attitude of indifference to the World Cup. He said, "This is a global event that people, I believe now, even in the United States, will tune into because of the sheer scope and magnitude of it" (JSONLINE.com, 6/11). In Chicago, Ed Sherman noted World Cup ratings "likely will soar if the U.S. team makes a decent showing." But even if it "doesn't, Drake believes the spectacle of the World Cup, coupled with the passion for soccer in Brazil, will lure viewers in record numbers." The net's "invasion of Brazil will consist of hundreds of ESPN staffers scattered throughout the country to cover every aspect of the Cup." It will be "as close to NBC's armada for the Olympics as it gets for a major sporting event." Drake said, "What we did in 2010 is rather remarkable in that you could make the argument that the United States was really the last holdout, if you will, for somewhat of a level of indifference in the World Cup. We fundamentally changed that in 2010. We did so through a production and marketing approach that made people understand how important this even it to the rest of the planet" (CHICAGO TRIBUNE, 6/11).

BALANCING ACT: USA TODAY's Mike Foss noted as soccer's fan base has grown in the U.S., it has "demanded a higher level of commentary, production and care from networks." ESPN's Ian Darke and Taylor Twellman will call the U.S. matches, and the pairing is "generally well-received by audiences at a time when fans are more educated -- and critical -- of soccer coverage on TV." Twellman said, "We’re not dumbing the game down for people. We don’t need to apologize for being soccer fans, and we owe it to fans to call the game the right way." But Foss noted Darke "isn’t interested in trying to Europeanize the American television experience." If anything, when he "approaches a broadcast on ESPN, he’s looking for opportunities to let American influences come through." Darke: "My general view of broadcasting in America is to respect the culture and how it is here. I don’t think any of us should be sniffy, I don’t like that at all, the same way if an American was calling a match in England. You have to be culturally aware" (USA TODAY, 6/11).

TAKING IT ALL IN: In Newark, Michael Fensom conducted a Q&A with with ESPN World Cup studio analysts Bob Ley and Alexi Lalas, who discussed what the on-air personnel are "paying attention to and discussing" when the matches are going on. Lalas said, "We are in the studio. It’s an insulated environment with huge monitors all over the place. We’re watching from a tactical perspective who is having problems, individually or in their zone of the field. We need to come back at halftime and say, ‘These are where the problems are and these are possible solutions.’ But there is also an element of watching as a fan and enjoying it. We are hooting and hollering at the screen when someone does something incredible. All of that bleeds back to what we’re talking about." Ley added, "It’s the same discussion we have on air, the same we have at the hotel bars or over cards or at dinner -- just with time constraints and language restraints" (NJ.com, 6/10). Meanwhile, the AP's David Bauder writes it is possible Lalas and fellow analyst Michael Ballack "go at it a few times on ESPN, particularly with the U.S. and German teams in the same group." The net has "adjusted its schedule to encourage spirited debate among its analysts." ESPN in '10 "found that some of the best soccer discussions happened in the hotel bar after the cameras turned off." Producers this year will "try to capture some of that passion, with a regular 'World Cup Tonight' discussion on an informal set" (AP, 6/12).
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