A World Cup For All Viewers

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.”

Will ESPN succeed in being all things to all fans? (Source: ESPN)

“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.

Great musician, great story...just not during the matches.

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.

Part I – Soccer, ESPN & The World Cup

Part III – Spanning the World with the Worldwide Leader

8 responses to this post.

  1. […] Tomorrow, Part II: A World Cup For All Viewers […]


  2. Posted by matthewsf on 2009/12/09 at 11:58 AM

    Good article Mark.

    As a media executive in my day job, I understand what ESPN is doing in terms of specifically the Masekela piece — hitting a specific demographic of users in hopes of increasing overall viewership for the Cup.

    However that’s one demographic? Why not do more vertical-ized so to speak segments. The cost of Maskela’s work is probably in the $150K range (I’m assume 3 months for Masekela at $50K total, production team at $50K, and travel and supplies at another $50K) …that’s not a lot for a ton of content to advertise around.

    Why not do a piece like the NFL does on the odds makers….you don’t think Wall Street types will be all over getting into a new betting stream? And before we say it’s gambling, as I am wont to point out on this site, ESPN…poker…so this would be a higher road.

    What about doing a piece for woman taking the “Soccer Mom” approach….?

    Anywho…good piece Mark.


    • Posted by Kevin on 2009/12/09 at 5:09 PM

      Strangely enough, there is an arguement that poker isn’t considered gambling. I remember hearing that some kid got busted for playing poker in his house (and betting real money), but he was able to get away with it because they pointed out that in poker it’s not all luck. It also takes some skill to win.


  3. I know this question is several years late, but whatever happened to Ty Keough? I though he was a great play-by-play guy.


    • Posted by Matt B on 2009/12/09 at 2:00 PM

      Wow, that takes me back to the first soccer games I can remember watching, with Ty Keough and Seamus Malin announcing. Good stuff.


  4. Posted by wixson on 2009/12/09 at 9:34 PM

    at any time did they mention demoting mr. onion bag to off-screen only duties? what sucks is that ESPN thinks he is a perfect way to blur the lines between both groups of viewers, and that’s a shame. regardless, solid article, thx.


    • Posted by Mark T on 2009/12/09 at 10:10 PM

      Tommy Smyth wasn’t made available to us, but I don’t think it was because he was demoted.

      Regardless of what you think of Smyth as announcer, he gave a pretty accurate, if troubling analysis of the USMNT on the ESPNSoccernet World Cup Draw podcast (with the exception of some inaccurate information on Jozy).


      (FYI: I wouldn’t listen much past the USMNT part.)


  5. […] Part II – A World Cup for All Viewers […]


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