There has been no bigger ally for soccer fans in the United States than ESPN president John Skipper. The television executive is a huge fan of the sport -- he adopted Tottenham Hotspur as his club team while doing business in England for ESPN -- and took his two sons to the 1994, 2006 and 2010 World Cups. Skipper has made growing world soccer a company-wide priority at ESPN and the network deserves all the plaudits it has received for its world soccer coverage, just as it deserves demerits for its Baylessian tendencies on manufacturing cross-platform debate.
ESPN's coverage of this year's World Cup (June 12-July 13) looks extraordinary on face. Upon the conclusion of the tournament, the network will cede coverage to Fox Sports, which takes over the World Cup in 2018 and 2022. "I think you will see the most comprehensive and broadest coverage of a soccer event anywhere in the history of the sport," Skipper said. "Our goal is to leave with a very high bar and I think we will do that."
Below, we offer a World Cup television guide to help you navigate through the month-long fun:
Where I can watch the matches?
All 64 matches of the World Cup will be broadcast live and in high definition on ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 in English, and on Univision broadcast and cable networks in Spanish. The breakdown: ESPN will air 43 matches; ESPN2 will air 11 and ABC will air 10 matches including the World Cup final on July 13 from Rio de Janeiro's Estádio do Maracanã. All 64 matches on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Deportes and ABC will also be available on computers, smartphones, tablets, gaming consoles and connected devices live on WatchESPN. WATCH ABC will stream some games as well. Philly.com's Jonathan Tannenwald has a great guide of all the broadcasters doing every game including radio coverage and Canadian broadcasters and here's Univision's offerings.
Who will be calling the matches?
The incomparable Ian Darke will be ESPN's lead game-caller for the tournament. He'll call the opening game of the World Cup (Brazil-Croatia on June 12) and the final on July 13. He's also be the voice of all U.S. national team games and will do England's games in the group stage. Darke is also assigned to Spain and Chile in the opening round. (His schedule for the knockout round and beyond will be determined while in Brazil.) Jon Champion, Adrian Healey, Daniel Mann, Fernando Palomo and Derek Rae are the other gamecallers and information on them can be found here.
What about the studio programming?
ESPN's headquarters are located at Rio de Janeiro's Clube dos Marimbás, a popular private sailing club on the southern tip of Copacabana Beach. How good will the pictures be from Brazil? ESPN senior vice president and executive producer Jed Drake called it the best remote studio in ESPN's history. The network plans to broadcast pre-match, halftime and post-match shows, with the pregame shows running 30 minutes each. The network says they will show the teams walking onto the pitch as well as the national anthems and ceremonial handshakes. There will also be a 90-minute post-match show called 'World Cup Tonight' on match days airing on ESPN, ESPN2 or ESPNEWS with analysis from an ensemble of ESPN on-air staffers. "This will be a t-shirt, don't shave, drop your bag and start talking show," Drake said. "For a soccer fan, it will be where you want to have a seat at the table."
ESPN has a ton of game and studio analysts. Who are they?
About a dozen ESPN analysts will rotate between games and the studio. Taylor Twellman will serve as Darke's partner on all U.S. games. Steve McManaman, who has partnered with Darke for years in England, will share the mic with Darke for the Brazil-Croatia opener and all of England's games. The other analysts include Michael Ballack (Germany), Efan Ekoku (Nigeria), Kasey Keller (US), Alexi Lalas (U.S.), Roberto Martinez (Spain), Alejandro Moreno (Venezuela), Gilberto Silva (Brazil), Santiago Solari (Argentina) and Ruud van Nistelrooy (Holland), who management is very high on. "We had been targeting Ruud for some time and he can be a breakout star for us," said Amy Rosenfeld, the network's senior coordinating producer for the World Cup.
We'd love to know announcer pairings for the rest of the group stage. Do you have them?
Alas, no. For some strange reason, ESPN's soccer management isn't releasing it -- an inexplicable move so close to the tournament's start.
How many people watched the World Cup four years ago?
The 2010 World Cup was the most-viewed World Cup ever on English-language TV in the United States. ESPN networks averaged 3.261 million over 64 matches, up 41 percent from 2006. Spain's extra time win over the Netherlands drew 15,545,000 viewers for the final. Only the 1999 Women's World Cup Final (U.S.-China) averaged more viewers for a soccer game (17,975,000) in the U.S. ABC's coverage of the Uruguay-Germany third place match drew 5,045,000 viewers.
Will this year's ratings top 2010?
Count on it. The time difference for Rio is one hour ahead of the Eastern Time Zone, which makes this a great television event. "We hope the U.S. does well but this event is not going to go off the rails if they lose in the group stage or knockout round," Skipper said. "We had spectacular results with Spain and the Netherlands in the final last time. We don't sit around with clinched fist saying 'Oh, my Gosh, if the US does not win, we have a problem.'"
One of the reasons ESPN's World Cup coverage has worked so well is because the hosts are not doing shtick. Will that be the case again?
Yes. Bob Ley and Mike Tirico return as World Cup hosts. The third host is newcomer and UK-presenter Lynsey Hipgrave of BT Sport, who replaces Chris Fowler (assigned to Wimbledon). I interviewed Hipgrave in April about the assignment.
What network will show the U.S. National team games?
All the group stage games for the U.S. will air on ESPN. The U.S. opens against Ghana on June 16, at 6:00 p.m. ET from the Estádio das Dunas in Natal. The team's second game (vs. Portugal) comes on June 22 at 6:00 p.m. ET in Manaus. The U.S.' final game of the group stage is against Germany at Arena Pernambuco in Recife on June 26 (noon ET). Darke and Twellman will call all the U.S. games together for as long as the team is in the tournament.
How serious is ESPN about covering the stories away from the pitch, from the $3.6 billion in taxpayer money that has been poured into still unfinished stadiums to in-country protests to the latest corruption charges against FIFA?
Skipper pledged that ESPN would not avoid any stories of interest related to the World Cup. The network will use the resources of ESPN Brazil and added ABC News reporter Bob Woodruff for its coverage. The other reporters assigned to the tournament are Julie Foudy, Jeremy Schaap (assigned to U.S. team until it is out), John Sutcliffe (assigned to Mexico) and ESPN Brazil's Rubens Pozzi. "We owe viewers to tell those stories and not clinch up because we are concerned about what the rights holder will think," Skipper said. "We don't believe in the notion that this this is the game and don't let the stories (outside) interfere with it. We have staffers like [ESPN.com writer] Wright Thompson, Bob Wooldruff, Bob Ley, Jeremy Schaap and if things happen or don't happen, we will be covering and I think we will cover them proactively. We won't need a protest to happen to talk about some of the issues going on in the country. We have never told anyone to not bring up stuff up during the game or the scene around it."
Give us your five must-see games of the group stage not involving the U.S. team.
Spain-Netherlands, June 13, ESPN, 2:30 p.m. ET
England-Italy, June 14, ABC, 5:30 p.m.
Germany-Portugal, June 16, ESPN, 11:30 a.m.
Brazil-Mexico, June 17, ESPN, 2:30 p.m.
Uruguay-England, June 19, ESPN 2:30 p.m.
Dude, you are no Grant Wahl, but do you have a prediction for the U.S. team?
I do, and I'm hoping it does not come true: I think the U.S will come home with zero points from the group stage. (The prediction would be the same had Landon Donovan made the team.)
What about radio coverage of the tournament?
ESPN Radio will broadcast all 64 games of the tournament and all matches will be streamed online on ESPNradio.com. These games will also be featured on Sirius XM Channel 84 and 85. ESPN's lead radio team is J.P. Dellacamera, who has called the last seven World Cups on various platforms, and analyst Tommy Smyth. Mark Donaldson and Ross Dyer will also handle play by play on radio.
I'm on Twitter. Any list of people to follow during the World Cup?
Yep. Here's my still-growing list of must-follows.
What about Fox Sports, which will take over the World Cup in 2018?
Fox Sports has nine executives traveling to Brazil to watch how ESPN puts on a World Cup. "We were blown away by the offer and hospitality from John [Skipper] and the ESPN guys," said Fox Sports president Eric Shanks, who is part of Fox's traveling party. "The ESPN setup is one we can learn a lot from."
Who is more fun to hang out with after-hours between Ley, Lalas, and Twellman?
Says Darke: "I am not going there because I will get crucified. But we all had a great time in South Africa traveling around together in large vans, doing quizzes and playing practical jokes on each other."
You have anymore from us on Darke?
Yes, we do. Check back in this space Tuesday for an extended conversation with ESPN's lead soccer announcer.
THE NOISE REPORT
SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the past week:
1. One of the biggest blowouts of last year's college football season was the viewership battle between ESPN's College GameDay and Fox Sports 1's Fox College Saturday. The final numbers: Game Day averaged 1,830,000 viewers while FCS averaged 73,000. ESPN said GameDay's least-viewed episodes had more viewers than all but three of FS1's game telecasts. Fox College Saturday also had another bad trend: The show opened with 107,000 viewers and sank to 44,000 viewers on Nov. 23.
If you ask people at competing sports networks how to attack a dominant show, they'll tell you that you have to do something totally different than the prevailing leader -- and FS1 appears to be heading in that direction. Multiple sources have told SI.com that Fox Sports management is considering moving Fox College Saturday to Friday night and changing up some of the staffing. There is also talk of starting a new college football show on Saturday that will be gambling-centric, similar to what Fox Sports Live did during the NCAA basketball tournament when it did live remotes from Las Vegas. Nothing is finalized as of yet.
"Like we do after every one of our sports properties' season concludes, we discuss and evaluate how we can make our coverage better for the viewers," said Fox Sports spokesperson Dan Bell on Sunday. "That process and those discussions are still ongoing regarding our college football production plans."
Of course no matter the format or content play, or even staying status quo, Fox Sports 1 is going to struggle to siphon viewers from GameDay given ESPN's dominant position and standing with viewers on Saturday mornings. But there is more trouble for FS1 on the horizon -- ESPN's upcoming SEC Network. The new network's pregame show ("SEC Nation") debuts August 28 at Columbia, S.C. That show will air every Saturday from 10-noon ET and features known broadcasting talent (see below). It will also have the benefit of being onsite at some of college football's great venues. There's also NBCSN's Saturday coverage of Premier League soccer, a property that gained a healthy amount of sports viewers last year. It's a killer timeslot.
Interestingly, Fox Sports 1 is clearly considering pushing gaming as an element of its coverage and that play has potential -- as well as some downside. Smart gambling segments are interesting and it's an untapped market in sports television. But such segments can also quickly become little more than a hot takes personality screaming out picks and praising himself (it's always a dude) when a pick hits the previous week. Gambling is also something that makes the NCAA queasy. It's going to be interesting to see where Fox Sports lands here in a very tough spot to beat the existing leader.
1b. ESPN has finalized the on-air cast of SEC Nation. Host Joe Tessitore and previously announced analyst Tim Tebow will be joined by former LSU defensive end Marcus Spears and ESPN Radio's Paul Finebaum. The network also announced the first five schools the pregame show will broadcast from this season: South Carolina, Auburn, Vanderbilt, Florida and Alabama.
1c. Fox announced its college football schedule last week, including the Pac-12 Conference Championship game.
2. As a producer, how do you approach (and ultimately convince) a subject to discuss the most devastating event of his or her life? That was the task for E:60 senior producer Heather Lombardo, associate producer Kaiti Decker and reporter Jeremy Schaap when it came to Rangers forward Dominic Moore. The 33-year-old Moore returned to the NHL this season following the loss of his wife, Katie, to a rare form of liver cancer last January. The piece, which is here, is ESPN at its storytelling best and I'd urge you to view it.
"It's never easy to ask someone to share their painful story, but in every story there's generally a positive takeaway and that's what I focus on in my approach," Lombardo said. "I told Dominic that we felt his story of love, dedication and perseverance would have an inspirational effect on those who have also endured loss."
Schaap brought the story to E:60's attention in the spring of 2013 and Lombardo reached out to Moore via email last summer. They started filming last August in Cambridge, Massachusetts -- Moore's home -- and the final shoot came on the night of the Rangers' 2013 home opener last October. Lombardo edited the piece during the winter and E:60 debuted the feature on April 24. Well done by all, and if interested, check out the Katie Moore Foundation page.
3. TNT's Game 6 coverage Saturday night of San Antonio's overtime win over Oklahoma City averaged 8.1 million total viewers and peaked with 12.1 million viewers from 11:15-11:30 p.m. ET.
3a. Fox' s Champions League final coverage between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid averaged 1.9 million viewers, up from 1.4 million in 2013 (Bayern-Dortmund).
3b. ESPN Deportes will have 600+ live hours of Spanish-language coverage of at least 54 live World Cup matches, starting with Brazil-Croatia.
3c. Lalas' acting here reminded me of a young Robert De Niro.
3d. The New York Times had a remarkable two-part series on match fixing in world soccer. Here's Part 1 and Part 2.
4. Sports pieces of note this week:
•Editor sends over a picture. Says, 'find this guy and write about him.' Great piece by SI's Greg Bishop.
•The Chronicle of Education's Brad Wolverton on the pursuit of a future basketball star.
•ESPN.com's Wright Thompson on Luis Suarez.
•SI's S.L. Price on the business of being Pele.
•Sports on Earth's Mike Tanier on why a punter could totally whoop your butt.
•Toronto Star columnist Bruce Arthur on legendary Hockey Night In Canada announcer Bob Cole.
Non-sports pieces of note:
•The AP's Matt Sedensky wrote a beautiful piece on a hospice nurse.
•Washington Post's Eli Saslow on the fastest growing job in America.
•A writer reflects on her time in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
• Really interesting piece on how (and if) the Harvard Business School should enter the business of online education.
•Via Nieman Journalism Lab: How seven news organizations run their Twitter and Facebook accounts.
•From Vox: Eight facts about violence against women everyone should know.
•NPR's Frank Langfitt on a U.S. teacher who did seven months in a Chinese labor camp.
•I could not love a photo more than this one of two girls reacting to soldier dad's return in Spokane.
• How A High-School Dropout Became The Most Dangerous Man In Financial News.
5. Solid work by the Records and Radio Twitter feed to point out the professional hockey goon and look-at-me-monorail salesman that is ESPN2's Skip Bayless. Examples are here, here and here. Naturally, I'll assume this will result in a raise from ESPN management.
5a. Former ESPN president George Bodenheimer retired from ESPN after 33 years.
5b. NBCSN's coverage of the series-clinching Game 6 win by the New York Rangers over the Montreal Canadiens averaged 2.123 million viewers, the second-most watched non-Stanley Cup Final game featuring a Canadian team ever on NBCSN. The game had the best NHL rating ever on NBC or NBCSN in New York with an 8.5 household rating.
5c. ESPN will televise the Women's College World Series Finals this week.
5d. Your lowest common denominator sports-talk radio award of the week goes to the geniuses on the afternoon show for Detroit sports radio station 105.1 FM. Take a bow, fellas. The nonsense did not go unnoticed by high-profile women in the business.