It's been said before: John Skipper is that rare American who can equally negotiate the worlds of Craven Cottage and Ricky Craven. As ESPN's executive vice president for content, Skipper has a major hand in the programming you see on the network and his fondness for soccer is no Beckham-come-lately act. He is a devoted supporter of Tottenham, the plucky London-based English Premier League team, and has spanned the globe with his two children visiting some of soccer's most famous cathedrals.
Last week, Skipper was in South Africa to monitor his network's coverage of the FIFA Confederations Cup, a tournament that provided an unlikely dose of serendipity for ESPN. The final between the U.S. and Brazil was seen by an average of 3.94 million viewers, the third-largest audience for a U.S. men's national-team match on ESPN.
"I will be disappointed and surprised if these are not the highest ratings ever for the World Cup in the United States," Skipper said of the 2010 event. "And we were just given a huge gift with the Confederations Cup."
ESPN owns the rights to the World Cup through 2014 and Skipper says his network is ahead of schedule with the tournament a little less than a year away.
"I think our ambition level is going to exceed the ambition of any broadcaster in the world relative to the amount of content we will produce," Skipper said. "We know what most of that content is and we have most of our features planned. We've got a host site and we are far along to identifying the people who will be there. We are in very good shape thanks to some really good work from the people in charge of our logistics and technical operations."
Among the features planned: John Battsek and Michael Davies, two of the producers behind Once In A Lifetime, the 2006 documentary about the rise and fall of Pelé and the New York Cosmos, have been dispatched to interview every living player who has scored a goal in a World Cup final. (ESPN also plans to air a documentary off the interviews.) Skipper said he expects any holdouts from the 50 or so subjects to ultimately fall into place. (Some subjects asked for money, though Skipper would not name them.) Skipper also said the network plans to "take a page out of the ABC Sports Olympic playbook and do "Up Close and Personals" on players from around the world. ESPN will do a long-form feature on at least one player from all 32 World Cup teams.
The game coverage will feature four reporters, including one reporter embedded with the U.S. team. Another reporter will focus on the South American teams, and two additional reporters will rotate around the tournament. ESPN will have two on-site sets, including SportsCenter, and three host anchors offering live and tape-delayed coverage.
Of prominent interest to viewers, Skipper said no final decision has been made on game announcers. But the executive did say, "We will have international talent. Everybody on our air will be a longtime soccer announcer." That will please soccer's chattering class who howled (as well as turned to Univisión) at the selection of Dave O'Brien as ABC's and ESPN's lead soccer broadcaster. Analyst Marcelo Balboa was also widely panned.
Skipper's trip to South Africa was his second visit to the country. His itinerary included Bloemfontein, Johannesburg, Pretoria and Rustenburg, the cities that hosted the Confederations Cup.
"At the venues themselves, I think the official security will be fine," he said. "In the country itself, there has to be some concerns, but I think if you go over there as a fan as I did, and you are cautious and exercise common sense, your chances of getting in trouble are very, very slim. The question then is when you have hundreds of thousands of football fans and some of them don't exercise caution or are reckless and stupid. That's what you worry about it.
"It's not yet the kind of place where I think you can get intoxicated and wander down the street and not worry about what might happen. So I think they have the official stuff in pretty good shape, and if you are careful, I think there's every chance you will be OK. I personally felt quite safe. I walked into the venues with the crowd and did not feel uncomfortable or threatened in any way."
In terms of scale and magnitude, the World Cup appears to be a dress rehearsal for what could be a future Olympics on ESPN. Said Skipper: "I'll answer that slightly by indirection: Our goal is to an Olympics-level broadcast. We view this as the first fully ESPN World Cup. We are taking SportsCenter there for the whole time and we are doing a studio show. We will treat this for what it is: one of the two great quadrennial sporting events in the world. So, by implication, we will treat this as the Olympics."
ESPN continues to expand its soccer presence. It recently partnered with GolTV to share Spanish La Liga games (ESPN2 will air about 20 games per season; ESPN Deportes will broadcast games every weekend) and bought the UK broadcast rights to some games from England's Premier League. The U.S EPL rights are held by Fox Soccer Channel and are expected to come up for renewal in the next couple of months.
Skipper said his network is interested and does not have to have exclusivity. As first reported by Sports Business Daily, the EPL is making a three-year package available, from the 2010-11 season through the 2012-13 season.
"We are very interested and we have relayed our interest to Mr. [Premier League chief executive Richard] Scudamore," Skipper said. "We are interested in all kinds of soccer."