World Cup Final Marks End of Two-Year Adventure for ESPN

ESPN’s coverage of the 2010 FIFA World Cup winds down this weekend, capping off a production process that began in earnest two years ago and promises to shape not only future World Cup coverage but also other big-time event coverage for the globally known property.

“This is a harbinger for decisions to come on big events,” says Tim Scanlan, senior coordinating producer for ESPN’s World Cup telecasts.

How could it influence future events? More than ever, ESPN World Cup coverage reflected the global reach of the ESPN brand, with sibling networks in the UK, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Australia, and the Far East working closely together. And the decision to hire the world’s best broadcasters for soccer, even though they had what most Americans might consider a funny accent, turned out to be so successful that it, too, could influence future event coverage. In fact, Martin Tyler, leading a team of broadcasters that includes Adrian Healey, Derek Rae, and Ian Dark, will make a return appearance in 2014 for the World Cup in Brazil.

Transformed U.S. Coverage
More than anything else, the decision to go with international voices has transformed the feel of the coverage for the U.S. soccer fan. Tyler and Dark, in particular, have provided rock-solid commentary that doesn’t talk down to the viewer but ensures that even novices understand the game. That decision was the result of workshops with hardcore soccer fans following the 2006 World Cup.

“They let us have it,” Scanlan recalls. “So we thought, why not go with the best in the world and appease the hardcore fan? We know they will watch.”

ESPN’s expanded commitment to the 2010 World Cup has its roots in the 2006 World Cup, when ratings continued to rise, regardless of how Team USA performed. In 2006, ESPN announcers called a little more than half the matches in Germany with a few reporters on-site as well; the rest of the matches were called from ESPN headquarters in Bristol, CT.

“When Team USA went out, our first strategy was to downsize and send people home, but the ratings kept growing,” says Scanlan. “So we called an audible to host the final from Berlin.”

Across-the-Board Investment
Couple that learning experience with Disney’s decision to grow ESPN internationally and the logic of a massive presence in South Africa fell into place.

“This is the biggest investment ever by our company, and there has been an across-the-board investment, with Disney’s approval, to push further than ever,” says Scanlan. “We have spent the past two years working on how to make this a big hit on every platform.”

Virtual Production Across the World
The efforts in South Africa are matched equally by production staff working at ESPN headquarters. A massive fiber connection between the broadcast center in Johannesburg and Bristol has allowed content to travel back and forth between the locations with less than a second of delay, creating in essence a virtual production facility that literally spanned the globe.

For ESPN, of course, the focus is squarely on the games, with pre-game, post-game, and primetime coverage built around them. “Ratings have been exceptional for the live matches,” says Scanlan, “and radio has been a success as well.”

How To Capitalize on Increased Interest
ESPN’s coverage of the 2010 World Cup has helped elevate the average U.S. sports fan’s understanding and appreciation of the most popular sport in the world. The question now is, how can ESPN capitalize on the momentum and continue to grow soccer’s popularity in the U.S. between now and the 2014 World Cup?

Scanlan says ESPN will look to take some of the components in South Africa — talent, say, or the way the studio show was produced — and connect them to future programming, such as MLS coverage, U.S. national-team matches, or the women’s World Cup next June. And ESPN is expected to continue to expand its reliance on talent from outside the U.S. to help solidify its soccer coverage.

“Grant Best, one of the top young directors for BSkyB, has given our soccer coverage in the States a lift as he makes the MLS feel more international by the way he cuts the game,” says Scanlan. “He adds nuance to the coverage.”

Applying Lessons Learned
A commitment to a weekly soccer show on ESPN2 will keep U.S. fans on top of soccer news from around the globe. And then there are the matches and ESPN coverage of leagues like the English Premier League.

“There is a flattening of the world,” says Scanlan. “Kids are becoming international soccer fans because they are growing up able to watch stars like Wayne Rooney [of England] or Kaka [of Brazil].”

Although ESPN’s efforts in South Africa wind down this weekend, it is only the beginning of the next phase of soccer-related efforts, which promise to transform the popularity of the sport in the U.S. As in 2006, lessons have been learned, workflows refined, and new strategies developed. The difference now is that ESPN’s global platform is truly ready to react.

Says Scanlan, “It will be a fun summer.”

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