SBJ/Dec. 14, 2009/This Week's News

Skipper rallies ESPN around World Cup

On a recent Friday in Bristol, Conn., John Skipper sunk his right hand into a white paper lunch bag at the front of ESPN’s cafeteria and skipped his fingers across a dozen blue raffle tickets. A group of approximately 35 ESPN employees looked on as the ESPN executive vice president of content made the first selection in the company’s mock World Cup draw.

“I feel like Sepp Blatter,” Skipper said as he drew a country’s name from the bag.

It should surprise no one these days that Skipper feels like the president of soccer’s international governing body. Over the last four years, he’s become one of the sport’s biggest advocates, and as the elaborate mock draw showed, he’s willing to go to great lengths to promote the sport as ESPN prepares to broadcast the 2010 World Cup.

Skipper has high hopes and expectations for the World Cup, and he should.

Around the Bristol campus, he is considered the architect of ESPN’s soccer strategy. Acquiring the rights to the 2010 and 2014 World Cup for $100 million in 2005 was the first significant thing Skipper did after being named to
ESPN’s top content position. The performance of next summer’s event will either validate or invalidate that move and go a long way to determining the future of ESPN’s other soccer properties, MLS, English Premier League and Spain’s La Liga.

Soccer has seen its ups and downs on ESPN. MLS, which ESPN spends $8 million a year to broadcast, generated a modest ratings increase in 2007, David Beckham’s first year, but has failed to exceed a 0.2 cable rating on average. Broadcasts of the EPL this fall on ESPN2 have been similarly underwhelming, averaging 263,000 viewers over 19 games. But those results haven’t undermined Skipper’s conviction that soccer and the World Cup will succeed in the U.S.

“I believe that in 2010 the U.S. sports nation will participate with the rest of the world in the world’s most glorious sporting event, the World Cup,” Skipper said. “I’m very confident the ratings will be up this year (from 2006). My only concern is how high is up.”

During the 2006 World Cup, Soccer United Marketing owned the U.S. rights while ESPN televised the games in a partnership, averaging a 1.9 cable rating and 1,735,000 households.

For ESPN, winning eyeballs for soccer’s signature event starts at home, where the company is attempting to convince its employees to enthusiastically embrace the World Cup. ESPN has erected a towering, 50-foot-long countdown clock at the center of its campus to remind employees how many days and hours remain until the event begins. It also assigned each employee a team to root for during next summer’s competition. (If you’re looking to cozy up to Skipper in the next six months, just ask him about his team, Cote d’Ivoire.)

“We’re trying to rally our employee base around a great sporting event that many of them have never really connected with before,” said Russell Wolff, ESPN International’s executive vice president and managing director.

Skipper said that most ESPN employees are more familiar with basketball, football, baseball and hockey. He added, “You can’t force things like this, so what we’ve tried to do is invite people to participate in the magic and fun (of the World Cup) by giving them entry points.”

As important as it is to win support among employees, ESPN’s effort extends far beyond its staff. The company will promote the game across all of its platforms over the next six months with creative that features ESPN’s 2006 World Cup theme, “One Game Changes Everything.” It also plans to dedicate 24 consecutive hours to soccer ahead of the first game of the World Cup in an effort reminiscent of its recent college hoops promotion.

The campaign was developed by Wieden & Kennedy. The first spot aired during the draw and a second will debut during the BCS championship game on ABC. ESPN executives say it’s the largest marketing investment for a single event ever undertaken on the network.

The effort behind the marketing of the event extends to production, as well. Not only will ESPN take its signature show “SportsCenter,” on-site for a month and have 10 reporting units following teams during the event for the first time, it also plans to air 50 special segments on Africa before and during its Cup coverage and send all four of its announcing teams to call all 64 games on-site, another first for ESPN.

“That’s what happens when you’re made a company priority,” said Jed Drake, ESPN senior vice president and executive producer of remote production. “Good things happen.”

JOHN SKIPPER
ESPN EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT, CONTENT

The effort won’t be cheap. The company plans to send more than 150 people to South Africa, an expensive proposition in itself. But the total cost of the rights fee, marketing, promotion and production remains a fraction of the more than $800 million NBC spent on the Beijing Olympics. Granted, the ratings also will be a fraction of the 16.2 average rating that the Olympics garnered for NBC in prime time.

“Soccer works for us financially pretty easily because it’s just not that expensive,” Skipper said.

ESPN already has signed up four major advertisers for the event and hopes to sign eight before the event begins. Skipper declined to disclose who the advertisers will be. Eight sponsors would make it 75 percent sold, and it will fill out the rest of the inventory with smaller advertisers.

“I think we’ll end up sold out,” Skipper said, “but we’re not there yet.”

Shortly before Skipper’s mock drawing for the World Cup, he told a story about a recent dinner he had with a player from the Nigerian national team that played in the 1994 World Cup in the U.S. The Nigerian said the team went to a mall during the tournament in their tracksuits and people assumed they played basketball.

After ESPN’s production of the 2010 World Cup, Skipper said he hopes the Nigerian team and others like it won’t go unrecognized. He added, “I consider that a measure of our success this time if that doesn’t happen.”

SportsBusiness Daily Assistant Managing Editor Austin Karp contributed to this report.

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