ESPN’s Unprecedented World Cup Coverage

It’s the most expensive production in the history of ESPN, with a crew of 300 ensconcing themselves in South Africa as I type. Breathless AP articles praise this unprecedented level of commitment:

The same network that drew criticism for calling 20 matches from U.S. studios four years ago is putting together a staff of 300 people to produce the event in South Africa. ESPN has hired British announcers and plans 65 hours of live studio programming from Johannesburg.

“We have a production plan that we think is up to the level of ambition of this event with a great group of commentators that we’ve assembled, a broadcast operation that is far and away the biggest we’ve ever amassed outside of the U.S.,” Drake [executive producer for ESPN’s World Cup coverage] said.

ESPN aren’t doing this for the sake of shits and giggles. The World Cup has become a major draw on American television, as this New York Times article highlights:

“If you ranked World Cup viewing by countries going back to 1998, the U.S. ranked 23rd,” said Kevin Alavy, director of Initiative Sports Futures, a London-based analysis firm. “In 2002, the U.S. jumped to 13th, and in 2006, it jumped again to 8th place. And we expect America to keep on jumping.”

In 2006, the ESPN-ESPN2-ABC broadcasts of the World Cup reached 70.2 million viewers while Univision reached 29.5 million, according to Nielsen Media Research.

It’s pretty obvious those rankings-by-country are aggregate numbers rather than proportions of the viewing public, but there’s no doubt ESPN are tapping into a growing audience for soccer in a massive market: “We’re definitely selling the World Cup as if the U.S. has been converted to soccer,” Ed Erhardt, the president of ESPN customer marketing and sales told the New York Times. “It’s a more diverse country than it’s ever been.”

Many bloggers and journalists, though, are less sure about whether ESPN is covering the game in the right way, particularly in the broader sense of what’s good for the game in the United States.

Paul Gardner highlighted the ambiguity of all this in his SoccerAmerica column yesterday, criticising again ESPN’s decision to go with British announcers, wondering if their approach will prove popular, and whether it will do any good for Major League Soccer:

I happen to think that ESPN has made a frightful mess of trying to work out who its World Cup television coverage should be aimed at — but I’d have to admit that it’s not an easy task. ESPN has decided to go for the Eurosnobs. What makes this rather hilarious, is that ESPN has done this without knowing anything about the Eurosnobs or about the various factions of the U.S. soccer landscape.

All we know is that the man in charge, Jed Drake, is a soccer ignoramus who is in love with British accents. And what will make matters even more hilarious is if this turns out to be the right decision.

Fake Sigi piles on from a different angle, highlighting an article on ESPN Soccernet (that’s actually wire copy from AP) about the stampede at Makhulong stadium on Sunday, summarising the piece as follows: “Mayhem! Violence! Not Uncommon! With the subtext that this is something foreign to be distrusted and viewed with suspicion.”

Fake Sigi concludes, “Maybe I’m a little sensitive, but I honestly thought ESPN of all outlets would be past this sort of thing. If this is what their idea of audience-targeted content looks like, they really do have it all wrong. ”

Maybe Fake Sigi is right in saying he’s a “little sensitive” on this one, but it does highlight the challenge ESPN faces in presenting its content (across a myriad of platforms, including television, radio, mobile, its magazine, and online) to diverse audiences, some extremely knowledgeable about soccer, some still hostile to soccer, some simply curious about soccer. Hell, that stampede article Fake Sigi links to has 265 comments to it, a good few weeks worth of comments here. Blogs like this one with a largely American readership who know the sport inside-out are but splattered bugs on the windshield of ESPN’s soccer juggernaut (just a few years ago, putting those last three words together would have seemed laughable).

The broadest conclusion to be drawn about ESPN’s unprecedented World Cup coverage is simply the good news that it reflects the growth of the sport. But that growth is fragmented, hard to measure and hard to direct appeal to (ask an MLS marketing department in the United States outside of Seattle), and this presents a massive challenge to ESPN as the premier sports outlet in the United States. It’s no wonder their coverage is something of a”frightful mess”.

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