The soccer-for-dummies approach is dead. When ESPN launches more than 300 hours of FIFA World Cup coverage from Brazil, its team of commentators will be working under the assumption that most U.S. viewers are well-versed in the sport that once was largely a mystery in this country.
“We’re now speaking to an audience that knows the nuances,” says Jed Drake, ESPN’s senior vice president and executive producer. “ . . . Soccer is not only more popular, it’s a better-understood sport in the United States.”
ESPN began targeting the “knowledgeable fan” four years ago with the World Cup in South Africa, when the network no longer bent over backward to explain what a throw-in is, or break down the offside law.
“The sophistication of the American audience has grown,” says Ian Darke, ESPN’s lead play-by-play commentator. “Now, I would regard that as an insult to their intelligence to explain the basics of the game.”
Still, the ESPN team realizes the World Cup will attract many causal observers who come for the sheer spectacle of the event. For them, analyst Alexi Lalas says, “we’ll slow the bus down a little bit, but you’ve got to jump on.”
And once you do, he adds, “you will learn very, very quickly and you’ll be involved in one of the greatest parties you’ve ever seen.”
Here’s a guide, for both die-hards and newbies, to the World Cup coverage:
HOW TO WATCH/LISTEN: All 64 World Cup matches will be broadcast live and in high definition on ESPN and ESPN2, as well as ESPN’s sister broadcast network, ABC. Meanwhile, Univision will have all 64 games in Spanish. Univision launched its highly ambitious 24/7 World Cup coverage on Monday.
The breakdown for English-language telecasts: ABC will air 10 matches, including the final July 13 from Rio de Janeiro. ESPN will offer 43 matches and ESPN2 will have 11. Drake says a minimum of 32 cameras will be used for each match.
Moreover, every match will be streamed via ESPN3.com. For mobile devices, tablets and game consoles, World Cup matches will be available on the WatchESPN and WatchABC apps. There will also be radio coverage via ESPN Radio in English and the Fútbol de Primera network in Spanish.
CALLING THE ACTION: Darke, ESPN’s leading man, will kick things off with the tournament’s opening match between Brazil and Croatia on Thursday. He’ll also call the final and all games of the U.S. national team, which plays its first match against Ghana on Monday.
In addition, Darke will handle England’s matches in the group stage.
Jon Champion, Adrian Healey, Daniel Mann, Fernando Palomo and Derek Rae round out ESPN’s play-by-play team.
IN THE STUDIO: Viewers should expect some glorious shots from ESPN’s headquarters, which hugs the shoreline of fabled Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro. The facility, Drake says, “is almost literally on the water.”
From there, the network plans to air pre-match, halftime and post-match shows. A 90-minute wrap-up show, “World Cup Tonight,” will be presented each day of the tournament.
The studio shows will be anchored by Mike Tirico, Bob Ley and newcomer Lynsey Hipgrave, of BT Sport in the UK. They’ll be joined by an ensemble of commentators, from 12 countries, that Drake says is “more diverse and opinionated” than the team ESPN put together for the 2010 World Cup.
TIME IS ON THEIR SIDE: Unlike South Africa, where the vast time difference forced American fans into many early-morning wake-up calls, Brazil’s time zone is just one hour ahead of the U.S. East Coast. That means each day’s matches will have much more comfortable starting times of noon, 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. (ET) — 9 a.m., noon and 3 p.m. out West.
Drake is especially excited that the final match each day will spill over into prime time on the East Coast, which should bolster ESPN’s ratings.
MORE THAN RED, WHITE AND BLUE: Drake doesn’t expect those ratings to take a massive hit if Team USA makes an early exit—a distinct possibility considering that the Americans have are in the so-called “group of death.”
“We’re not hanging our hopes on the success of the U.S. team,” insists Drake, who says that, in addition to the Americans, ESPN will offer “significant” coverage of Mexico, Spain and, of course, host Brazil.
“The event itself is much bigger than the success, or lack thereof, the U.S. team,” he says.