SBJ/July 28-Aug. 3, 2014/Opinion

Higher ‘soccer IQ’ helped ESPN produce immersive coverage

As soccer continues to grow in the United States, the 2014 World Cup demonstrated how the sport continues to thrill avid fans and invite new fans to the world’s game. While the U.S. men’s team clearly drew impressive numbers, the audience remained strong even after the U.S. was eliminated. In all, coverage of the event reached 125 million people on ESPN networks.

Unlike league play, the World Cup is an intense and immersive short story where every four years national pride and the world’s game meet on football’s largest stage to decide how the top 32 football-playing nations stack up. For ESPN, this event has provided the opportunity to demonstrate the power of sport and our ability to deliver on our mission to serve sports fans wherever and whenever.

ESPN learned valuable lessons in our coverage of the 2006 World Cup and the 2008 Euro Championship that informed our approach to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. That experience provided a successful blueprint for our coverage this summer.

We all know how Americans get up for big events, whether it’s the Super Bowl, Oscars or the World Cup. It’s the same with ESPN. With the 2010 and 2014 editions of the World Cup, we increased our internal “soccer IQ” and learned about two amazing countries, their national pride and love of the sport.

In preparing for the 2014 World Cup, collaboration between our U.S. and Latin American businesses was a key goal and the difference-maker in our success. Our colleagues in Brazil were critical in helping secure our host location on Copacabana Beach and with helping inform various creative elements of the coverage seen in the U.S. market. Internally, the collaboration between business units around the World Cup has made us better and set a new standard going forward.

In addition to all 64 matches, our production team produced more than 130 original hours of studio programming. This content featured world-class and diverse talent from 12 countries, including a roster of analysts who played in a combined 43 World Cup matches. This unique group of men and women were integral in providing “game around the game” context and insights throughout our coverage. Shows such as “World Cup Tonight,” the innovative “Last Call” segments and distinctive voices like Grantland’s “Men in Blazers,” assured authentic and engaging commentary throughout the tournament.

In the run-up to the event, our marketing team produced promotional spots that conveyed the magnitude of the World Cup, and that the tournament was returning to soccer’s spiritual home. Our original content group also produced a slate of soccer films and shorts, including the “Inside” series which provided a rare up-close look at the U.S. team, all of which added another dimension to the anticipation of this global event.

In terms of accessibility, having matches and surround programming available on a variety of platforms (TV, digital, audio, etc.) is a key component, so fans know where and when to tune in and can take the World Cup with them wherever they are. This World Cup was the most-streamed event in history thanks largely to our industry-leading WatchESPN product. Portability for all sporting events and especially for soccer will be even more crucial in the years ahead given the various time zones from which games will originate. This remains essential for helping soccer attract a more broad and consistent audience.

ESPNFC was also a success coming out of the World Cup. This digital brand, which covers the world of soccer year-round, will be critical to our coverage of the sport going forward. During the World Cup, we successfully integrated FC into our TV coverage and both platforms played off each other to provide immersive coverage.

As for the sport in the U.S., we understand the World Cup and soccer leagues remain far apart when considering audience levels and social buzz. The intense and immersive format of the World Cup, combined with national pride, make it a unique media property. That said, Brazil 2014 has clearly strengthened soccer’s position in the sports hierarchy in the U.S. We continue to believe that soccer is a growth sport in the U.S. and will continue to provide fans with live coverage of world-class league play as well as daily coverage of the sport via ESPNFC.

ESPN has signed a new eight-year agreement with U.S. Soccer and MLS, and we are now just two years away from presenting the 2016 UEFA European Football Championships in France, the next major global soccer event on our networks.

To paraphrase the American Outlaws, “We Believe” there is a bright future for soccer in this country and ESPN remains very committed to that bright future.

Scott Guglielmino is senior vice president of programming and X Games at ESPN.

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