ESPN Closes in on World Cup, MLS

ABC and ESPN are nearing a TV-rights deal for carriage of the next three World Cups and Major League Soccer through 2006.

As part of ongoing negotiations, the parties are discussing a five-year pact that would deliver the men's 2002 World Cup from Japan and Korea and the competition from Germany in 2006, the Women's World Cup in 2003 and MLS coverage to the networks through 2006. The deal could be announced as early as this week.

It was unclear at press time how ABC and ESPN — both owned by The Walt Disney Co. — would schedule World Cup 2002, given the time differential from the Far East, which would place matches in the middle of the night on the East Coast.

Univision Communications Inc. already holds Spanish-language TV rights for the 2002 World Cup, to take place next May and June. It plans a mix of live and taped coverage on Univision, its primary broadcast network; Telefutura, its second broadcast network slated to bow in January; and cable network Galavisión.

A spokesman for KirchMedia, which sells World Cup TV rights around the globe for FIFA, the sport's international governing body, said "a deal was imminent."

MLS spokesman Dan Courtemanche said "our goal is to have an agreement by next week." An ESPN spokesman said talks are "at an advanced stage and we expect to make an announcement soon."

Courtemanche said MLS, through a consortium of its owners, has been moving toward acquiring the World Cup rights from Kirch. In turn, MLS is looking to package the quadrennial event with its own games for ABC and ESPN. MLS would then sell advertising and sponsorships in conjunction with the World Cups.

The negotiations continue, as MLS's board of governors is expected to decide within the next few weeks whether to expand or contract the 12-team league, which will enter its seventh season next spring.

MLS and ABC/ESPN had been expected to announce a TV deal back in October, which would have provided the circuit coverage, largely in late Saturday afternoon windows, on ESPN2. Courtemanche said it was around then that negotiations for World Cup rights with Kirch began in earnest.

Representatives for Turner Sports and Fox Sports said their companies held discussions with Kirch about the 2002 World Cup, but decided to pass on the event because of timing issues, among other reasons.

Although soccer has produced some big spikes with the U.S. teams in World Cup action — particularly with respect to the 11.4 household ratings ABC garnered for the women's final match against China in the 1999 World Cup — its Nielsen Media Research ratings have been low overall. Last season, ESPN averaged just a 0.26 and ESPN2 a 0.21 with MLS matches.

ESPN and ABC's three-year rights deals with MLS expired with the 2001 season. ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 aired the 1994 and 1998 men's World Cup and the 1999 women's World Cup.