SBJ/June 16-22, 2014/Media

Will ESPN’s plans change for the beautiful game?

As the sun sets on the network’s World Cup rights, soccer executives hope the sport’s longtime supporter will stay committed to the game.

After spending the better part of three decades helping popularize soccer in the United States, soccer executives are hoping ESPN’s commitment to the beautiful game doesn’t fade.

In recent years, the sports network has lost the English-language rights to the sport’s highest-profile events. The World Cup and Champions League went to Fox. The English Premier League landed at NBC. La Liga fell to beIN Sport.

SBJ Podcast:
Staff writers John Ourand and Tripp Mickle analyze World Cup rights holder ESPN's commitment to soccer and what the network means to the sport.

ESPN, which once televised all of those properties, has been left with nothing but the rights to Major League Soccer, some U.S. national team games and the 2016 European Championships.

ESPN's last World Cup until at least 2026 opened Thursday in São Paulo.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
“Their coverage of the World Cup [from 1998 to 2010] kept the embers burning and now [soccer has] caught fire,” said Charlie Stillitano, CEO of Relevent Sports’ soccer division, which is bringing a host of European soccer clubs to theU.S. for exhibition games this summer. “It’s ironic that ESPN won’t benefit.”

Soccer executives feel indebted to ESPN, and more specifically to soccer fan and ESPN President John Skipper, for promoting the sport so heavily to English-speaking sports fans over the last decade. Since 2006, when ESPN bested NBC for the World Cup rights in 2010 and 2014, the network featured soccer highlights on “SportsCenter” and brought soccer stars such as Alexi Lalas onto popular shows like “Pardon the Interruption” to discuss the sport in front of general sports audiences.

For its part, ESPN has been public about its desire to stay involved in soccer. Last month, ESPN committed to an eight-year deal to carry MLS games, betting that the league will grow domestically. Skipper has said that ESPN plans to bid on EPL rights when those come up, probably next year. And Skipper’s top lieutenants say that ESPN will be aggressive in trying to pick up rights to other top leagues.

As quickly as ESPN lost its live soccer rights, it sees an opportunity to get them back in the next couple of years.

“The European league deals are done on three-year cycles, and those three years come up pretty quickly,” said Scott Guglielmino, ESPN’s senior vice president of programming. “I wouldn’t worry about our commitment in that regard.”

Of course, there’s no certainty that ESPN will regain any of those rights, especially now that it’s not the incumbent broadcaster. Money talks, and ESPN found its bids for soccer’s biggest properties to be lacking over the past several years. It’s not common for ESPN to be outbid for sports it wants, such as the NFL, Major League Baseball and college football.
  
In 2012, NBC won the EPL rights over a joint bid from ESPN and Fox. A year earlier, Fox outbid ESPN for the World Cup, and just six months ago, Fox outbid ESPN for the UEFA Champions League.

Still, ESPN’s involvement in those bidding processes placated some soccer executives.

“It’s not from lack of trying, and that’s the first thing that’s important,” Stillitano said. “ESPN bid on these heavily and lost to other rights holders. That is a good sign that ESPN is not saying, ‘Forget it. We’re not going to bid on this stuff.’”

Observers see no sign that ESPN is cutting corners in producing the 2014 World Cup.
Photo by: GABRIELA BATISTA / ESPN IMAGES

Another encouraging sign is coming from Brazil this month. Soccer observers are taking notice of the commitment ESPN is making in producing the World Cup. ESPN does not appear to be cutting corners on its production of the event — something some soccer observers find surprising given that the network can’t carry the tournament again until 2026 at the earliest.

“It’s an excellent sign they don’t seem to be pulling back in the nature of their coverage from Brazil,” said former ABC Sports executive David Downs. “If I were in their shoes, I would be tempted not to do that knowing I was boosting it for a competitor four years from now. But I see the opposite. They seem to be doing it more lavishly.”

ESPN’s involvement is important to soccer observers, who believe the network’s marketing muscle has helped fuel the sport’s growth in the U.S.

Stillitano recalls having breakfast about a decade ago with sports marketer Frank Vuono, who at the time was not a big soccer backer. Vuono was complaining that ESPN was trying to force soccer on American sports fans by including its highlights in the top 10 plays on “SportsCenter.”

“It may seem insignificant but it’s wholly important,” Stillitano said. “It was really a sign that ESPN was taking soccer very seriously before anyone else was. … ESPN reached the American sports fan better than anyone else did during these lean times.”

It will be harder for ESPN to reach those fans without live rights. But Guglielmino said ESPN is committed to covering the game through ESPNFC, its website devoted to soccer that launched nearly two years ago.

“Live rights are king — they draw the largest audiences,” Guglielmino said. “But soccer is a perfectly suited sport for digital, given the different leagues and time zones. ESPNFC is going to be a big part of our soccer voice and our coverage for the fan going forward.”

In 2013, its first full year of operation, ESPNFC.com averaged about 843,000 daily visitors and had 250 million video starts.

The success of ESPNFC is something that staff at the network will be watching closely, as well.

Longtime ESPN anchor Bob Ley, a host of the network’s World Cup coverage, has lived the growth of the sport at the network, which he joined in 1979. He regards ESPN’s coverage of the U.S. men’s national team game against Mexico last March as a testament to its commitment to soccer. Not only did it have an hourlong pregame show, but the scoreless tie became the featured story on “SportsCenter.”

“There was a time when a nil-nil game would have been the focus of derision,” Ley said. “From the amount of time ‘SportsCenter’ gave it, to the size of the pregame show, all of these are editorial and financial decisions that underscore the importance of the sport to ESPN.”

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