ESPN's Jed Drake Talks World Cup, Says Ratings Have Exceeded Expectations
ESPN Senior VP & Exec Producer Jed Drake gives his staff in Brazil a simple message as his network produces its last FIFA World Cup event until at least '26: do not be afraid to take it all in. "These things are what you work careers towards. I said that yesterday in our production meeting. I realize just how hard we're all working. But this is all going to be over in two weeks. Then it will be done. Remember these moments. These are moments that you'll remember for the rest of your life." Drake spoke with THE DAILY about his experiences during the World Cup's group stage.
Q: How happy are you that the U.S. team advanced?
Drake: Professionally, I'm very pleased because this buzz that we've been hearing about in the United States is going to continue for at least another five days, until at least next Tuesday when they play Belgium. But we're covering the entire tournament, and the good news is that there's a great many stories that are fascinating that we'll be covering in addition to the United States story.
Q: What have been the best storylines for you?
Drake: Overall, there's an unpredictability to the tournament. Who would have thought that Costa Rica and Greece would be playing in the round of 16 against each other? More importantly, the stars are really coming to the top. That's great to see. You have (Lionel) Messi with four goals, you've got (Thomas) Müller with four goals. (Clint) Dempsey has been doing great for the U.S.
Q: Have you been surprised by the TV ratings?
Drake: I knew the numbers would go up, but, I mean, come on. The U.S. game on Sunday night out-rating four of the NBA Finals games? That's exceeded my expectations. I'm thrilled.
Q: What do these numbers say about the state of soccer in the U.S.?
Drake: Soccer is continuing to grow in the United States. There's no doubt about that. The fact that the U.S. is into the knockout round now has drawn great attention to the sport. Only positive things can happen. But there's this opportunity to have this nationwide communal experience that people in our country love to have. We were the last holdout of indifference to the World Cup before 2010, other than knowledgeable soccer fans who understood this tournament. That clearly changed in 2010. It's about the soccer team. It's about backing the United States on something. And it's also this fascinating characteristic of the U.S. that we love to get behind something like this.
Q: Is there a sense of melancholy that you helped to build this tournament up in the U.S., now you're handing it off to Fox?
Drake: It's an odd sort of thing. I love this event. There's no doubt about it. Am I disappointed that ESPN won't have the event again? Sure, of course I am. From every aspect of this project and its success. I am a professional, and ESPN has a great portfolio of properties. There's a little bit of me that wants to make sure that we push the bar as high as we can for our successors.
Q: What's been your proudest moment from the group stage?
Drake: It was after the second U.S. match, which was a great sporting event. The timing was perfect -- Sunday night at 6:00pm ET, with nothing else going on of huge significance in the sporting world. We were within 30 seconds of going through right then on a win. I'm in the control room when the bubble burst. I reminded people that we had a big job to do, so let's just get after it. Bill (Hofheimer) came to me the next day and said, "By the way, did you know that you had 23 million people watching at that moment." I said, "Dear God, that's extraordinary."
Q: How have you dealt with off-field stories of protests in Brazil?
Drake: You've covered a lot of big sporting events. Whether it's the Greece Olympics or the Sochi Olympics or the World Cup in South Africa or this World Cup, all of the concern and angst about the logistics and whether this thing is going to be ready. That was the question that I was asked continuously, and it never comes up anymore. We're here to cover a tournament. When there is news that surrounds an event that warrants our attention and that our viewers need to know the circumstances surrounding this event, that's when we make those decision. Other things may happen now as we get into the knockout stage. Maybe the protests do kick up again, I don't know. If they do, we will cover them to the extent that we feel is appropriate relative to our match coverage.