ESPN President John Skipper is one of the most interesting figures in sports media. A North Carolina native with a southern drawl and Mr. Peabody glasses, he can even make TV ratings and figures sound folksy. That he does the same with his opinions on soccer makes his love of the sport even more genuine.
That was the brilliant part of ESPN’s World cup press event at the Paley Center in New York City — that Skipper made a sporting event that likely cost them hundreds of millions of dollars sound like a personal story. He giddily recalled about how he and his sons had traveled in a van through South Africa to see matches almost every day of a two-and-a-half week sojourn through the country. He got big, knowing laughs from the crowd when describing the English team as “in shambles.”
Skipper (who will tour Brazil with his sons, now both in their mid-20s) and ESPN will present the World Cup in many countries, across several languages, with tons of personnel setting up around the country and at home base in Rio de Janeiro. Just in America, they will present every match across television, radio and on digital platforms. ABC News will be present, and the Men in Blazers podcast will record live reactions to the Match of the Day (I assume to many, this is of equal importance).
Skipper is not just in this as a fan however, as he knows soccer is good business. “By all accounts, soccer is an ascendant sport, if you look at what kids care about and watch,” said Skipper. He cited ESPN polling data that revealed soccer “by some definition is the second-most popular sport, so we have to be there.”
ESPN will cover the World Cup like never before in this country, both before and after all 64 matches. Every night, live from the network’s base camp in Rio De Janeiro, they will air a 90-minute studio wrap-up show. While half of it will be traditional studio fare, the other half will be a dressed down, conversational show between both studio and game talent, just based on who’s available at that time.
There are certainly plenty of candidates. From the Americans Alexi Lalas, Kasey Keller and Taylor Twellman, to internationals Steve McManaman, Stewart Robson, Michael Ballack, Efan Ekoku, Alejandro Moreno, Gilberto Silva, Santiago Solari, Ruud van Nistelrooy (whom ESPN is particularly high on) and Roberto Martinez. ESPN will also use the Men in Blazers for this part of the program.
The network had a change in philosophy between 2006 and 2010, where they felt they no longer needed to go with American commentators to explain the tournament. They just went with whomever they felt was best. It’s something that’s especially validating to ESPN Senior VP/Executive Producer Jed Drake, who is in many ways the chief of soccer for The Worldwide Leader.
Drake insisted that (while going nowhere near taking shots at Fox’s decision to use American Gus Johnson) “an event like this, with the commentators, they have to have lived in a country where it’s a native to them. They have to have spent a lifetime understanding the sport and what the event itself means, and that’s huge.”
The audience response has been fantastic. “That is the most validating thing for me, and I’ve been around World Cups for a long time, and I oversaw our coverage in 1994. I’ve been involved, and from the shift that we made from ’06 to ’10, to see the impact we made with that cultural shift, where for the first time in this country outside certain areas, somebody will walk up to somebody else wearing a jersey… and they would never talk to them in a million years were it not for the fact that they were in that period of time during the World Cup. That happening a million times over, is like, thank God we got it right.”
ESPN will not have the World Cup in 2018 nor 2022, as Fox won the english-language broadcast rights. Fox executives John Entz and Eric Shanks were both invited by Skipper, in his words “so that we can do a proper hand-off.” Though it’s pretty clear, ESPN is issuing a challenge to Fox to try and top this.
Drake more or less insisted that in his conversations with friend and Fox Sports Media Group CEO David Hill. “After Fox acquired the rights I called him up and congratulated him, and asked, ‘David, did you like our coverage in 2010?’ and he said ‘Absolutely,’ in fact, a couple years later I saw him at Daytona and he was effusive about it. I said, “Here’s the deal: We’re gonna make 2010 look like a warmup act.”
With the presentation, cast of characters, and compelling storylines heading into Brazil… it appears to be showtime.