With one week to go before Brazil faces Croatia in the opening game of the 2014 soccer World Cup in Sao Paulo, ESPN SVP and executive producer Jed Drake says his team’s preparation has been going “exceptionally well” and that what ends up on air “is going to be tremendous and worthy of the event itself.” That said, the local “infrastructure is not what it should have been.” As expected, some of the stadiums “are not at the level of completion the country would have liked to have them at this point.” But, the infrastructure issues — which will present a “big challenge” to the crowds — won’t have an effect on the telecasts. “We’re going to be fine,” Drake said. But, he’s cautioned producers and commentators, “Time and patience are going to be your biggest allies. You’re going to need large measures of both.” Drake is confident the ratings will rise for the network’s coverage of the beautiful game, but is also prepared to cut away to news if protests “or anything that goes to a higher level” should unfold. With the country in a state of un-preparedness, a crime wave has broken out in Rio and threats of protests have been looming for more than a year over economic and planning problems related to the World Cup and impending Olympics. ABC News has a large contingent headed to Brazil and Drake says ESPN will “shift gears and go into news programming” if necessary.
Back on the pitch, ESPN’s 2010 coverage of the World Cup from South Africa won it three Sports Emmy Awards and brought it record ratings for soccer. Drake is confident that it’s a “foregone conclusion” this year’s Cup will provide ratings that are better than 2010. “I see no other outcome.” The 2010 World Cup was the most-viewed ever on English-language TV, averaging a 2.1 rating and 3.26M viewers on ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC, up 31% in ratings and 41% in viewership from 2006. Part of Drake’s conviction that this year’s numbers will rise is down to the East Coast being almost in line with Brazil time zone-wise. “As good as ratings were in 2010, we now have an opportunity with the time zone virtually identical to the East Coast” and some matches will end up in primetime. But some of the ratings potential will also depend on the success of the U.S. team, which in 2010 made a star out of Landon Donovan. He was left off the squad this year and won’t be playing. Whether that has an impact on the side’s chances or not, Drake says 2010 “proved the event itself is much bigger than the success, or lack thereof, for the U.S. team… If Brazil, as the pundits seem to think is quite possible, win this thing, it will be a fascinating ride.”
In 2012, Spain’s victory over Italy in the Euro Cup final was the most-watched European football championship game ever in the U.S. with an average 4.068M viewers on ESPN. The final was also ESPN Deportes’ second-highest-rated European soccer match ever on a Spanish-language sports cable network. (For the same final, Spain’s Telecinco drew an average 15.5M viewers and an 83.4% share.) Across ESPN’s coverage, all 64 matches of the planet’s most popular sporting event will air on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Deportes and/or ABC as well as computers, smartphones and other devices. I asked Drake how important the Spanish-speaking audience is to ESPN’s ratings. While he didn’t offer a specific percentage, he noted the network is very cognizant of the Hispanic audience and will be closely covering not only the U.S., but the Mexican national team and Brazil. ESPN3 Surround is presenting companion viewing experiences to all 64 telecasts that will allow fans to watch every match live in multiple language offerings, including Portuguese. Univision is also airing the games.
Drake believes ESPN in 2010 “fundamentally changed” the interest level of U.S. sports fans, who previously were rather indifferent to the pitch, “through a production and marketing approach that made people understand how important (soccer) is to the rest of the people on the planet.” For the casual viewer, they will be a “far more knowledgable soccer fan on the back side of this than they were going in.” He’s hopeful that people “truly do alter their lifestyle to be able to watch it in whatever form. That is the beauty of this event. Every four years people can put their lives aside and focus. That is our goal in 2014.” The network paid $100M for its 2010-2014 deal, but Fox has rights to the 2018 World Cup and the now embattled 2022 tournament in Qatar.
Meanwhile, across the pond where football fans are waiting breathlessly for the Cup, there’s a slight uphill battle given the time zone difference. In 2010 Europe was essentially in the same position with South Africa as the States are with Brazil this year. Some matches will be played at the European equivalent of midnight, but the late stage pairings will happen closer to 10 PM – not really late by our standards — meaning ratings are unlikely to suffer in countries where networks often pull upwards of 60% of the viewing audience when the home team is playing. Speaking of national networks and hometown pride, the BBC last week pulled a stunt I thought worth mentioning. Using ‘live’ video, text commentary and contributions from special guests, BBC Sport streamed the 1966 final between England and Germany — yes, that again — the last time the Three Lions scored such a victory. This World Cup is played from June 12-July 13.