ESPN, the World Cup and MLS in 2010

ESPN the Magazine -- Fan Issue cover, Kobe Bryant playing soccer

The love-hate relationship American soccer fans have with ESPN is legendary. The sports television behemoth (and I’m not sure even that word captures how much ESPN bestrides the world of American sports in the 21st century) is at once derided (too dumbed down in its coverage; too focused on the Beckham-cam) and desired (ratings are picked over with a Bigsoccer-sized toothcomb; HD coverage is drooled over) by fans for its coverage of the sport.

What can’t be doubted is ESPN’s commitment to the World Cup next year and beyond, and executive vice president of content at ESPN John Skipper was recently added to the US Soccer Federation’s 2018/22 World Cup Bid Committee. He is also an actual fan of the sport, regularly travelling to England to watch Tottenham Hotspur. ESPN has of course begun showing Premier League games in both the United States and England this season, with strong ratings achieved over here.

But how will they approach the World Cup in 2010, and how does MLS fit in next summer?

Skipper was also in charge, though much newer in his job, in 2006, spending the tournament in Germany. ESPN’s coverage of the tournament was high-quality, though marred by baseball guy Dave O’Brien’s newbie commentary (though he did improve noticeably on the job) and Marcelo Balboa’s amazingly atrocious performance as a sidekick (I had to institute a rule in my house for everyone watching to stop criticising Balboa’s irritating inanity, so as to be able to talk about anything else over the 90 minutes of any given game).

We can expect much better in 2010, with Martin Tyler already signed up as the lead voice. And then there’s the Sports Guy’s new found interest in soccer, a bajillion ESPN folks seemingly already on location in South Africa, and SportsCenter ready to explain the offside rule 80 times over, or whatever. ESPN knows how to overload coverage.

Yet will this mean that MLS will get lost in the shuffle in 2010?  The league will break for two weeks of the World Cup (though not the entire tournament) but will still be on ESPN the rest of the summer, most of it without ratings drawing cards like Beckham and Blanco. Many MLS teams are already sensibly planning to tie-in their marketing efforts with World Cup watch parties (helped by the break teams will be taking), so at a local level, we should see a vast improvement on previous attempts by MLS to keep playing soccer and pretend nothing else was going on in the rest of the world.

ESPN’s own approach to MLS was explained by Skipper to reporters at a media availability session last week to promote ESPN’s World Cup coverage, with Kyle McCarthy at providing an excellent summary:

The key for Skipper and ESPN remains finding a way to transfer the viewership in big-ticket items like the World Cup and the English Premier League to the domestic scene in greater numbers. In order to advance that goal, Skipper said ESPN plans to use its emphasis on the World Cup to increase interest in its MLS property as it enters the fourth year of an eight-year, $64 million deal. ESPN2 will feature a MLS game as part of its 24 hours of coverage before Mexico and South Africa kick off the World Cup on June 11, while other tie-ins are also expected to help raise awareness.

This is welcome, but the key for any momentum to immediately transfer to MLS will surely be a couple of post-World Cup major signings, as Skipper essentially went on to say: “If they sign somebody prominent, it’s a great story for us and we can build around it. It’s just that they (need to) get better players in, too. (Players such as) Fredy Montero in Seattle, if they can find players like that. The soccer just has to get better. You’d like to have some big names to have some stories around, get a few more people to the stadiums and poke up in the ratings here and there, but as long as it just keeps getting better, we’ll be fine.”

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