This is Part II in a series of pieces resulting from TSG’s trip to ESPN headquarters for Media Day and the World Cup draw.
How does ESPN plan to straddle the wide gap between knowledgeable soccer fans and casual sports viewers in their coverage of the World Cup?
ESPN’s answer…divide-and-conquer according to the ESPN marketing team. Viewers fall into two broad categories, “core soccer viewers” and “the big event viewers.”
“Core soccer viewers,” i.e. those who will watch a Slovakia-Paraguay match, will be the priority during games. Broadcasts will be “pure,” focusing on the play on the pitch. ESPN will use the clean feed from FIFA and keep the screen devoid of advertisements and potentially the Bottom Line ticker. As one of ESPN’s marketing guys told me, the World Cup games are not the time to “experiment.”
Likewise, in-game commentary will be directed at viewers with a high level of understanding of the game. Announcers, including the recently hired Martin Tyler, will not “Americanize” the call nor will the commentary be dumbed-down, so to speak, for more casual fans. In addition, ESPN believes it has hired the best commentators (not the best American commentators), by retaining the likes of Ruud Gullit, Frank LeBouef, Steve McManaman, Efon Ekoku, Shaka Hislop and Alexi Lalas among others.
For the “Big Event Viewers,” i.e. those who don’t watch soccer regularly, but tune-in for the pageantry and drama, ESPN will attempt to make the World Cup on par with the Olympics. The spectacle of the World Cup will be conveyed through the stories surrounding the game; a very American style of sports reporting.
ESPN believes that South Africa is a huge part of the World Cup story and will tell its stories through “Voices of South Africa” as well as a ten-part series following Sal Masekela as he attempts to understand the upbringing of his jazz legend father, Hugh. This is likely an attempt to bring non-soccer fans in the right demographic (male 18-45) into the fold in the hopes of getting them hooked for “the event.” ESPN will also explore each of the 32 teams in-depth and is attempting to tell the individual stories of the 50 or so players who scored a goal in the World Cup finals.
From what we’ve been told, the storytelling and education of burgeoning American soccer fans will not take place during the games. It will be relegated to the studio shows and screen sidebars. As one ESPN executive remarked, “we won’t be explaining the offsides rule” to viewers. For educational purposes they will be doing screen splits similar to the morning of the World Cup draw during the Mike & Mike show when ESPN2 ran capsules of all 32 teams on the left side of the screen.
With 12 hours a day coverage for a month ESPN has to position the World Cup in a way that will draw the biggest audience which in the US will sway more towards the “big event viewers.” From prior World Cups, however, Bristol has learned that not serving the viewer tuning in for the soccer is a mistake and will attempt not to make that one in South Africa.
No doubt about it, ESPN has a difficult job in-front of them bringing the World Cup to life for the broad American audience. Success lies in their ability to effectively blur the lines between spectacle, story and sport in a manner that appeals to a mass audience while not coming across as phony or cartoonish to the knowledgeable soccer fan. In the next seven months, we’ll find out if ESPN will be authentic to the vision it has for itself.