ESPN’s bittersweet farewell to the World Cup

June 12, 2014, 9:00 AM UTC
ESPN 3-D Television Launch Event For 2010 FIFA World Cup
One of several studios on the Bristol, CT, ESPN campus Friday, June 11, 2010.
Bloomberg via Getty Images

Sixty-four matches, 290 hours of coverage by commentators with a combined 14 World Cups’ worth of experience, broadcasting from 12 cities spread out over an area roughly the size of the United States.

Brazil 2014 will be the most complex World Cup in ESPN’s history. It will also be its last, for the foreseeable future.

After the tournament, the Disney-owned (DIS) network will hand over television rights to the games to Fox, which will hold the baton until at least 2022.

Without the World Cup, ESPN will lose a part of its soul. Broadcasting the four-year tournament for six times in a row, the network was instrumental in changing the pedigree of soccer in the United States, says James Andrew Miller, author of Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN. “When ESPN president John Skipper became head of content, securing the rights to the World Cup was one of the first things he did. Ever since, he has woven the tournament into the fabric of the network, making it a huge part of ESPN’s brand.”

Fox acquired the 2018 and 2022 World Cup rights in 2011 in a blind auction worth $425 million, more than quadrupling the $100 million ESPN had paid for the 2010 and 2014 television rights. “There is no question that ESPN was in love, wanted to get married, and was left at the altar,” Miller says.

This major investment is part of a larger effort to strengthen Fox Sports 1, a recently launched sports channel intended to compete directly with ESPN. In addition to landing the World Cup, 21st Century Fox-owned (FOX) FS1 has spent billions of dollars in deals to secure coverage of the MLB, Nascar, and the NFL.

With the World Cup, Fox has added a growing franchise to its stable. After 20 years of promoting the sport to the American public, international soccer seems to be catching on at last. Compared to the 2006 World Cup in Germany, ratings for the 2010 tournament in South Africa were up 41%, averaging 3.3 million viewers per match. “A generation worth of investment is finally starting to reap some benefits,” says Chris Bevilacqua, a media industry adviser who has structured sports right deals.

The cost of airtime has increased as well. According to an industry insider, the price of a standard, 30-second commercial during the 2010 final was around $200,000. For this tournament, it is expected to be in the “mid $300,000s.” Part of the increase can be chalked up to inflation along with the fact that Brazil’s time zones are five hours closer to the U.S. than South Africa, explained the insider, who is still involved in the process and spoke on condition of anonymity. “But even then, it’s definitely a jump.”

Other factors are at play as well. “Americans have become more sophisticated about world sports, ” says Neal Pilson, president of Pilson Communications and former head of CBS Sports. “Soccer has benefited from the vast increases of technology that allow fans to watch games from pretty much any country at any time. This was not the case five years ago.”

From that perspective, the $425 million Fox paid for the next two World Cups does not seem excessive at all, says Bevilacqua. “In the last couple of years, all premium sports rights deals have been going for two or three times compared to what they were on previous cycles. The World Cup falls in line with that.”

Painful as the loss of the World Cup may be, it won’t have a significantly detrimental effect on ESPN, says Pilson, who was at CBS when it lost the NFL to Fox in the 1990s.“American networks have a history of moving on. CBS lost the NFL, ESPN lost the World Cup, NBC lost Wimbledon to ESPN. Things change. In the end, it won’t make any difference at all.”

ESPN did not respond to a request for comment.

Even without the World Cup, ESPN is still the biggest player around by far, says Bevilacqua. “They have an incredibly powerful brand and a lot of long-term rights, including Monday Night Football, Major League Soccer, MLB, and the NBA. For the next 10 to 15 years, they have their business model pretty much locked in.”

The increased competition from Fox may even benefit the network, says Bevilacqua. “A rising tide lifts all boats. FS1 further solidifies the value of sports in American culture. The bigger a business becomes, the better it is for the dominant brand. Even when the next World Cup airs on Fox, ESPN will still be all over the tournament. They will simply switch to other programming around it, just like they do when NBC airs the Olympics.”

How will passing the Cup to Fox affect the sport itself? Soccer fans were not amused with the way the FS1 covered the 2011 Champions League final, airing a segment in which former NFL player Michael Strahan compared soccer to football, and one about the relationship between Spanish soccer star Gerard Piqué and Shakira, who performed the South Africa World Cup theme song.

Such so-called dumbing down of the game are likely growing pains, says Bevilacqua. “They might have to grow into it a little bit, but I’m sure they’ll get it right. There was a lot of skepticism when Fox made its move on the NFL, but look at them now. They’re viewed as one of the best presenters the sport has ever had.”