ESPN aims to make World Cup history in Brazil
Out of the thousands of words that were spoken, printed and tweeted at ESPN's World Cup press conference last Friday, one phrase stood out the most.
NEW YORK - Of the thousands of words that were spoken, printed and tweeted at ESPN's World Cup press conference this past Friday, one phrase stood out the most.
They came from Amy Rosenfeld, the network's senior coordinating producer for all things soccer. She has overseen broadcasts of the sport since 1999, when she produced that year's historic Women's World Cup. Few others in Bristol have the experience she has at bringing the world's game to the American audience.
At one point during the presentation, Rosenfeld and executive producer Jed Drake were seated on the podium with event host Bob Ley, another of ESPN's foremost soccer veterans.
Rosenfeld was tasked with describing the expected tone of next month's World Cup broadcasts.
"The best service we can give to all of you is, in some ways, to stay out of the way," she said. "But when we introduce ourselves to the coverage, it had better be damn good."
You do not need to remind anyone at ESPN that the network is losing the FIFA contract to Fox after this year. That they intend to go out at the top of their game has long been clear, and was brought into even sharper focus last week.
ESPN does not just want to set the bar higher than it did four years ago. There's a pretty strong feeling inside and outside of Bristol that they'll set the bar higher than Fox can reach in 2018 or 2022.
(Or next year's Women's World Cup in Canada, which will be Fox's first major tournament broadcast under the FIFA contract.)
Drake and ESPN president John Skipper addressed the matter multiple times on Friday. They did so in different ways, befitting their dramatically different personalities. Drake is a fast-talking Northeasterner who stood before the press in a crisp suit and tie. Skipper is a plain-spoken North Carolina native with a deep, rich drawl. He wore a sport jacket, sweater-vest and open shirt.
In that context, it might not surprise you to learn that Drake was the more blunt of the two. He admitted that he's "on the record with Fox" about this being the end of ESPN's World Cup era, and told a story to illustrate that:
I have a few true friends there, one of whom I actually worked with for many years, [Fox Sports Media Group CEO] David Hill. After Fox acquired the rights, I called him up and congratulated him. There were a few choice words in there, but said with a smile. Then I said, "David, did you like our coverage of 2010?" He goes, "Absolutely." In fact, I saw him at Daytona a few years afterward and he was effusive about it - Which was fine. I said, "Well, here's the deal. We're going to make 2010 look like the warm-up act."
Skipper took a slightly more diplomatic route. He told a gathering of reporters after the formal presentation that he invited Fox Sports president Eric Shanks and other executives to join ESPN's party in Brazil "so that we can do a proper - to use a British word - handoff."
That invocation of the Queen's English was not by accident. Earlier in the question-and-answer session, Skipper was asked to reflect on the network's landmark decision four years ago to use British play-by-play voices instead of Americans.
Skipper gave a lengthy answer:
In '06, our sense was that we were going to present this to an American audience with Americans. We decided in '10 just to do the best job we could, hire the most experienced talent we could. We found a real gem, of course, in Ian Darke, and a little magic struck when Landon scored the goal [against Algeria], and there was Ian.
So for him to become the signature voice just made sense for us. I don't think we started with the idea that we had to have a British voice - although it does sound great on soccer, right? The Brazilians play the best, but I think the Brits call the game the best, without a doubt.
I think we were gratified that fans [and] media - instead of getting criticism, we got plaudits. And like everybody else, we like that positive reinforcement. Plus, they just did a great job. They do understand how to hang back from the game, and Ian understands the drama. That call was just spectacular when Landon scored the goal.
We did have the hope to put more Latin talent on the games this year, and you can see we specifically targeted that. We wanted somebody from the Brazilian team, and Argentina and Mexico, because we wanted to tell those stories.
Those remarks prompted a question to Skipper on whether Americans might not want to hear soccer games called by an American voice. The word "authenticity" was invoked.
Skipper dismissed it.
"I don't think they're resistant at all," he said. "I don't know if they [Brits] sounds better, but the decision was that it was a meritocracy. We think we put the best guys in the booth who can do the best job for us that we have available."
I asked Ley for his reflections on ESPN's changes in philosophy. He was one of the network's original on-air talents when it launched in 1979, and was broadcasting soccer games even before then on a local cable channel in New Jersey. So he knows better than almost anyone just how different the present is from the past.
"They took the shackles off in 2010," he told me. "It was transformative for us at the network, in realizing we could set the bar high editorially [and] artistically, and get over it and bring the audience with it. That's where we have set the bar, and hopefully a little bit higher, for what we hope to achieve in Brazil."
Ley told me that there came a point during his time in South Africa when he turned to a few colleagues on the studio set and said something simple but quite profound: "We're finally doing the Cup we've always wanted to do."
That moment was decades in the making for him.
"You always struggle with on what level do you do a game," he said. "The greatest affirmation wasn't for us, it was for the audience. We showed that with smart coverage, they'll rise to the moment.
Lead studio analyst Alexi Lalas also brings a unique perspective on ESPN's evolution. He has been a U.S. national team player, a Major League Soccer club executive and a television analyst. This year's World Cup will be his third as an ESPN analyst.
"Timing was an important part" of ESPN's change in tone, he told me. "I'm not sure it could have been done earlier. But obviously, for us that are embedded in it, it was wonderful that we didn't have to dumb it down, and that we did things in the way that I think presented it authentically."
Like many other Americans, Lalas is a fan of many sports. So it meant something to him that the 2010 World Cup was presented in a way made soccer feel like part of the establishment.
And he knows that it meant something to many other people within the notoriously self-centered American soccer community.
"Soccer folks are always looking to be considered equals - we're very sensitive about that," he said. "For the first time, soccer was televised the way you would do any other sport. That translates into credibility."
ESPN has a reputation for not being afraid to trumpet the things it does well. You'd expect that from any network, and especially the programming empire with the highest per-subscriber fees in all of pay television. And you saw it some with Skipper's quotes about the decision to go with British-accented play-by-play voices.
But when it comes to soccer, the Bristol brass also carry a streak of humility. There was a company-wide epiphany when the tone of ESPN's coverage of the 2006 World Cup drew a tidal wave of criticism from soccer fans. Skipper, Drake and the rest did their homework in 2010, and the result was one of the best productions in ESPN's history.
As Drake put it:
We made a huge shift from 2006 to 2010 - we just said, we're changing the game. That was one of the major factors when we talked about authenticity. Our approach was simply this: that we will do our coverage - this was for '10, and much the same now for '14 - as an event for the soccer fan.
We've recognized even from '10 to now that soccer has grown in this country, not just the monumental spikes that you get for the World Cup but overall. Soccer is a more important event than it was four years ago.
We're going to continue to do our coverage for the soccer fan, recognizing the simple fact that in this country, we have truly come to understand what this event means worldwide, and more importantly we can embrace it and enjoy it for what it is.
Which announcers do we put on? We put on the very best. We play to the soccer audience, and the rest of our audience - as our research clearly shows - will come for the pure spectacle of it, and get drawn in.
The most personal description I heard of how ESPN's mentality has changed over the years came from Seth Ader, the network's director of marketing:
I've worked on every World Cup since 2002. In 2002, we produced one spot for the World Cup that year, and we also produced one spot for the Spelling Bee, just to give you some perspective. And I love the spelling bee - it's not a knock on the spelling bee, if anything, it's a knock on us for not understanding what we were up against.
In 2006, we had this collective epiphany that this audience was real, that it was passionate and growing. They wanted more from us - they wanted more quality, more quantity. And then 2010 became sort of our finest hour. I think we're all very proud of that, but we're not resting on that at all.
"We can say that we are a soccer nation," Ader concluded, "and that's not something we could have said 12 years ago."
If you thought ESPN's 2010 World Cup presentation was big, this year's spectacle will be even bigger. massive. According to senior vice president of programming Scott Guglielmino, the network will produce 290 hours of television coverage, between games and shoulder programming. That includes a 90-minute studio show every night of the tournament.
But the Brazil-bound army won't just set the bar with the quantity of their coverage. They'll do so with the quality of their coverage. The nightly studio show might be the best example. If it ends up being as good as Drake wants it to be, it will be as much required viewing as the games themselves. Here's how he described his vision:
In 2010 we only did a 30-minute show, World Cup Live. The best conversation happened every night back at the Hyatt hotel when we had the eighth and ninth [floors] lounge area. Everybody would walk in: Martin [Tyler], Ian [Darke], Macca [Steve McMannaman], Ruud [Gullit], whomever. This conversation ensued, just normally and organically, and it was fabulous.
I said to Scott [Guglielmino], "We need some time. Can you do this?" And he said, "Sure. We know we can sell it." So we've expanded that show to 90 minutes, and what will happen towards the end of World Cup Tonight is that at some point the producers - myself included - will just throw the flag, and we're going to say, "We're moving over to the set. Take off the ties, let's go."
I saw Taylor Twellman earlier today and we were talking about his schedule. He's going to be coming in on a Monday, I think after the U.S. match [against Ghana] on the 16th, and he'll get back into Rio at about 8:00 at night. I said, "I want you over on the set." He said, "Yeah, but do I have to be dressed for it?" I said "No, in fact, not. A t-shirt, don't shave, drop your bag, start talking."
That's what this show is going to be like. I think for a soccer fan, it's going to be the kind of show where you would give your right arm to have a seat at that table. And by the way, the international people who work right next door - we're dragging you guys in, too. We're going to have a conversation, and it's an ensemble cast. It could be 20 different people on three different nights.
Drake wasn't kidding when he said 20 people. ESPN will have a dozen analysts who will rotate between games and the studio, six play-by-play announcers, five dedicated reporters and three studio hosts. The network also won't be afraid to bring in more voices from its international channels covering the event from the same building.
On top of all that are two more distinguished guests: the "Men in Blazers" duo of Michael Davies and Roger Bennett. They'll be part of the TV studio crew, and they'll also do a daily wrap-up podcast that I'm sure will be required listening.
That's all the on-camera people. Now consider how many people there will be behind the scenes.
In addition to its American staff, ESPN will lean heavily on the network's longstanding operation in South America, especially its Sao Paulo-based Brazilian office. Skipper explained the importance of connecting the staffs from both continents:
It provides us a level of knowledge and understanding. In the United States, we're a recent participation in the world's game. That doesn't mean people haven't been trying for a long time - I'm not trying to suggest that at all, or trivialize that - but being able to be with people who live the game every day from when they were two years old or three years old in Colombia or Argentina, we'll take advantage of all the resources there.
Obviously it provides us a deeper level of understanding of the culture, the people, the politics and what the game means in the region. We intend to take full advantage of that. I hope it will feel seamless. I hope it will not be clear that now we're going to bring in our resources from ESPN Mexico. We're going to be ESPN.
Rosenfeld's job is to execute the moves that make everything look seamless to the viewer. She has traveled to Brazil multiple times in recent months to visit cities and stadiums - whether they're ready to open or not. She told me that the American contingent "would be "dead in the water" without its Brazilian counterpart.
"Americans could not manage with the culture, the government, the permits - you see my blood pressure going up - without the work that ESPN Brazil is able to navigate so nimbly," she said. "They have the knowledge of the country, they have the knowledge of how to work within the infrastructure."
It's not like ESPN just walked into a place to shoot a commercial, or one of the Wright Thompson-narrated video essays that you'll see throughout the tournament.
"You don't just get on the phone to make a deal," Rosenfeld said. "A deal is about sitting at the dinner table for three weeks in a row and in the last five minutes, you say, 'Thank you so much for inviting me to dinner, would it be okay if I put my cable here?' That's how it works in Brazil. It's all about relationships, it's all about having the ability to navigate the bureaucracy of permitting and government issues - and doing it all legally."
Even in a city as modern and cosmopolitan as Sao Paulo, there are still many hurdles that tournament organizers have to overcome before the first ball gets kicked in mid-June.
"Sao Paulo was a full-on construction site [requiring] a hard hat and boots," Rosenfeld said of her most recent visit there. "Will they pull together? They'll pull it together, but there are a lot of challenges to be able to do your television infrastructure when the stadium infrastructure doesn't really exist."
Manaus is another example. Situated deep in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, it's a city that will provide a spectacular backdrop to the United States' much-anticipated game against Portugal.
But you can't drive a production truck there.
"You'd have to float it," Rosenfeld said. "This is where you have to rely on your partners [and] the host broadcaster to be able to work within the confines."
We both chuckled at the idea of floating production equipment into a World Cup host city, in part because Rosenfeld has done it before. A decade ago, she helped ESPN send a production truck on a barge to Grenada to broadcast a U.S. national team World Cup qualifier.
This isn't a one-off game on a small Caribbean island, though. This is the world's biggest sporting event in one of the world's biggest countries.
It would have been nice to believe that her remark was a joke. It wasn't.
The presentation of this World Cup won't just be about what happens on the field, of course. It will include plenty of exploration into Brazilian culture - including the turmoil that has been wrought on the nation's streets as its public protests the high costs of staging the tournament.
Drake and Skipper promised that ESPN will not back down from covering the news as well as the sports.
"When the unexpected happens in Brazil - which we think is inevitable - in terms of news coverage, we've got a great group of people that will be put into position in order to cover the news," Drake said. "That will be part and parcel of our coverage. People have asked me time and again whether we will be covering the news as it unfolds around the tournament - it goes without saying that the answer is obviously yes."
The network has called on its colleagues at ABC News for help, and will get it in many ways. One of them is the inclusion of ABC veteran Bob Woodruff as one of the sports-side reporters in Brazil.
"The commitment from ABC and [ABC news president] James Goldston has been tremendous, as evidenced by Bob Woodruff, among others," Drake said. "We're also planning on feeding the ABC television network to the fullest extent that they may want our coverage - whether that's on Good Morning America, Nightline, or certainly on World News Tonight. I said to James back in December that it will be a rare day that you hear me say no to any request that you make, and by extension the entire ABC television network."
Skipper acknowledged that "you can't leave the action" on the field. But he also made it clear that presenting a World Cup means presenting much more than just 64 soccer games.
"We won't need a protest to happen for us to talk about some of the issues that are going on in the country," he said. "When the game starts, we will mostly do the game, but we have never told anybody to not bring up, during the game, the scene around it."
What if the scene around the game clashes with the game itself? Say there's a massive protest outside a stadium while a game is going on. Would ESPN cut away from the field?
I put that question to Skipper.
"I hope it's not a hard call at all," he said. "If you're in the truck and you're doing the game, you don't have to call any executives to make a decision. They have the freedom to make those decisions on the spot, and at every truck and every game, everybody has the ability to make that decision."
Although covering the non-soccer news may stir up controversy if done right it should be well-received. But there is one aspect of ESPN's broadcast plan that is likely to draw a negative reaction: the decision to air all of the United States' group games on cable, instead of putting at least one on over-the-air television.
That decision was based mainly on FIFA's schedule. ABC's broadcast windows are based on days of the week and kickoff times, not specific matchups.
It's still a major talking point, though, especially with the marquee U.S.-Portugal game taking place on a Sunday. The 6 p.m. Eastern kickoff time is both a blessing and a curse: it's a perfect window for American TV, but it conflicts with ABC affiliates' local newscasts in the Eastern and Central time zones.
I asked Guglielmino whether there were ever discussions to try to get the U.S.-Portugal game on to ABC. He said there were not.
"Once that match ended up moving into the late window, when you look at the overall business that we're trying to look after, plus the ABC network, it made sense to leave it the way it was," he told me.
Translation: The U.S.-Portugal game is going to pay some bills. If it makes you feel any better, that's an indication of soccer being treated like every other major sport ESPN broadcasts.
Not having any U.S. games on network TV may just be down to circumstance, but the history of the matter should not be overlooked.
Four years ago in South Africa, the U.S.' group stage game against England and the Round of 16 game against Ghana were broadcast over the air. In fact, ABC has shown at least one U.S. group stage game in every World Cup it has ever aired in which the U.S. has participated. That goes back to 1994.
(Not all of those broadcasts were live, admittedly. In 2002, the U.S.-Poland game was shown tape-delayed on ABC a day after it was shown live on ESPN. But officially, the point stands.)
In Brazil, the only way the U.S. will get a game on ABC is if it finishes second in its group and makes the quarterfinals. That's not an impossible scenario, but it's unlikely.
A U.S. game on ABC at this World Cup would surely set a television viewership record for American soccer. It could happen on ESPN, given how many people have cable or satellite packages now, but pay TV's reach is still smaller than network TV's.
There are five viewership records to watch for during the World Cup:
- The record for U.S. national team soccer viewership in the United States was set by the U.S.-Ghana game in 2010. It drew a drew a combined figure of 19.6 million viewers on ABC (15.1 million) and Univision (4.5 million).
- That game also set an English-language broadcast record for the U.S. men's national team.
- The overall U.S. national team English-language viewership record belongs to the women. Their legendary triumph over China in the 1999 World Cup final drew 18 million viewers on ABC.
- For soccer as a whole, the viewership record in the United States is the 2010 World Cup final, which drew a combined 24.7 million viewers on ABC (15.9 million) and Univision (8.8 million). That record will almost certainly fall for this year's championship game, and it could even happen before then.
- The most-watched soccer game ever shown on U.S. cable television was the 2011 Women's World Cup final. It drew 13.5 million viewers and ranks sixth all-time. That record will likely fall too. If it doesn't happen for the U.S.-Ghana game, it surely will for U.S.-Portugal.
For all of the TV viewership records this World Cup will set, I'm not entirely convinced that we'll see a new overall U.S. national team record if all of its games end up on cable. It would take not only enormous numbers from ESPN, but from Univision too.
In the end, it's highly unlikely that too many fans will truly be shut out from watching in some form. Univision will offer sanctuary to cord-cutters, as will plenty of bars and restaurants.
But even in this age of seemingly infinite channels on cable and satellite, network television still bestows a special kind of spotlight. As of now, it will not shine on the U.S. national team.
When you add up everything that ESPN and ABC have planned, it's impossible to stop soccer fans from salivating over what's coming. Indeed, it's such a big deal that even the buzz is building among non-soccer-loving American sports fans to an unprecedented degree.
This is a personal triumph for Skipper, who is one of soccer's biggest champions at the network. It certainly does not hurt the sport's presence in Bristol that he is also the president of the company.
"We hold the World Cup in the highest regard," he said. "In the U.S. [historically], my sense was we didn't fully participate in that. In 2010, we put our resources into making sure that the U.S. was there in full glory, and I think in '14, in the place where soccer is most revered, in Brazil, what we want to do is to build upon that."
2014 will be the fourth World Cup that Skipper has attended in person. The first was the United States' tournament in 1994; he also was in Germany in 2006 and South Africa in 2010.
In 1994, Skipper said, "I felt like I was at a museum, in a way, because I didn't really understand the game at all."
Going to Germany with his two sons changed his perspective. There, he said, he saw "how a soccer country embraces it, and what it feels like to have fans from 32 teams with the flags and jerseys in bars and restaurants and hotel lobbies. It's just pervasive and overwhelming."
Skipper went to South Africa with his two sons as well, and he'll do so again this year. Four years ago and eight years ago, the three of them traveled around in a van. They'll fly this time instead of driving - Brazil is too big to traverse by road - but the journey will still be meaningful.
"There's no better father-son experience," he said. "I think we're going to go to nine games in 13 days... We'll be in Brasilia, Salvador, Belo Horizonte, Manaus, Rio, Recife."
Most Americans won't get the chance to see those cities in person. They'll have to settle for the pictures ESPN sends to their televisions.
But it's a safe bet that for fathers, sons and millions of other people, just watching the World Cup on TV will be its own great bonding experience.
As you sit on your couch, or on a barstool, or at your office desk watching games, spare a thought for the men and women behind the scenes who will be bringing all of the action to you.
For as Drake said, "it's only the most complex production plan that we've ever mounted at this company, bar none."
The countdown is on to show time.