Fever Pitch

The largest live sporting event on the planet is days away. And the audience — more than 3.2 billion viewers tuned in to the 2010 FIFA World Cup from South Africa — is expected to be bigger, and watching on more screens, than ever before.

Given the growing interest in the “joga bonito,” favorable time scheduling for various regions, and rights contracts in place with every nation and territory for the first time, FIFA officials expect to surpass the audience of four years ago when its famed tournament kicks off in Sao Paolo, Brazil, with the host nation facing Croatia on June 12.

Led by talented trickster frontman Neymar, the Seleção are the favorite to hoist the golden trophy for a record sixth time. Unlike the Olympics, where home-country wins translate to more viewers, soccer’s international appeal is expected to drive ratings over U.S. points — not to mention create a bonanza for advertisers seeking U.S. Hispanic audiences.


Stateside, U.S. rights-holders ESPN and Univision are kicking into high gear to grow the audience tally from four years ago. For the South Africa event, Nielsen estimated 111.6 million U.S. viewers watched at least six minutes of the action, a 22% increase from the 91.4 million reach for the 2006 World Cup from Germany.

ESPN and Univision netted record audiences in 2010 for overall coverage, and together, with the final game, they set a combined U.S. mark for a soccer match: 24.2 million saw Spain top the Netherlands to wear the 2010 crown.

In what marks their final go-round under expiring rights contracts with soccer’s international organization, both programmers are going all in with linear TV and multiplatform coverage on computers, smartphones and tablets.

The 64-match tournament culminates at Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro on July 13. Fox and Telemundo own the rights from 2015 through 2022, beginning with next year’s Women’s World Cup in Canada.

Matches will air on ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC, as well as on Univision and Univision Deportes Network, UniMas and Galavisión. Online coverage will be on WatchESPN and the Univision Deportes app. And, of course, there will be hundreds of hours of flanking studio, shoulder, news analysis and entertainment fare.

“I think you will see the most comprehensive and broadest coverage of a soccer event anywhere in the history of the sport,” ESPN president John Skipper said. “Our goal is to leave with a very high bar, and I think we will do that.”

Univision Deportes president Juan Carlos Rodriguez said the overall game plan is to be The Economist of soccer: “We’re going to tell you why things are going to happen. And if things don’t turn out that way, we’ll explain why we missed them.”

“We realize that everybody can’t fly to Brazil, but we want to make sure that everybody watching feels like they are there,” he said.

Univision’s morning show Despierta América (Wake Up America) will be in the mix, and 40 million-subscriber cable service Univision Deportes Network will turn into a 24/7 World Cup channel, starting on June 9.


With Brazil one hour ahead of the Eastern time zone, there will be many more afternoon and early-evening matches, rather than the morning time slots prevalent in 2010.

And with Mexico — which received a huge assist from the U.S. to qualify for the tournament — facing Brazil in Group A action on June 17 at 4 p.m., Rodriguez is expecting big Nielsen returns. He’s projecting a 20% gain from South Africa.

Univision viewers’ interest in El Tri notwithstanding, Keith Turner, president of advertising sales and marketing at Univision, said “there are 10 Latin American teams that are followed closely by our audiences, as well as the U.S. squad.”

Skipper hasn’t been that specific with his forecasts, but believes the tourney and soccer have grown enough in this nation that deliveries are not fully dependent on Sam’s Army (supporters of the U.S. national team), and whether or not their side can escape Germany, Portugal and Ghana and advance in the so-called Group of Death.

“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,” he 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 U.S. does not win, we have a problem.’ ”

It wouldn’t hurt to see the U.S. do well, though. Indeed, ESPN is holding back advertising inventory relative to the team’s performance and opportunities that might arise.

“You hold a little bit in your pocket,” Ed Erhardt, president of ESPN global customer marketing and sales, said. “It’s a month-long tourney, not one game.”

Erhardt said the company is in a very strong position with the event, as “interest in soccer and the World Cup is significantly higher than it was four years ago for ESPN.”

Turner, emphasizing the added benefit of UDN, reports a very strong sell-through with growth in the auto, beer, wireless and studio categories.

Noting that soccer’s flow of game limits commercials to pregame, postgame and halftime segments, Erhardt said sponsors — official FIFA partners such as Adidas and Coca-Cola, as well as other advertisers — have secured positions in linear shoulder programming, as well the revamped ESPNFC.com website and the WatchESPN and ESPNFC apps. “There is a lot more flexibility in social and digital,” he said.

The prospects for enhanced digital play are tantalizing. Senior director of marketing Seth Ader said that since ESPN covered the 2010 World Cup, the number of smartphones in the U.S. has jumped from 67 million to some 160 million today. There are now 119 million tablets in play, versus just 13 million four years ago.

With the weekday-heavy match schedule, Ader “expects workplace productivity to plummet.”

Univision is hoping the same. In an effort to ramp up its TV everywhere initiative, the U.S. Spanish-language media leader will live-stream the first 56 matches and related content to any user. The final eight matches — from the quarterfinals to the final on July 13 — will be available digitally only to authenticated video subscribers. A multimedia, multilayered message program will be employed to stimulate signup.

Globally, the prospects for live streaming are sanguine. Kurt Michel, director of product marketing, media and delivery solutions at Akamai Technologies, which is working with more than 50 clients/rightsholders, pointed to the increased number of smartphones and tablets, plus improved connectivity and speed, for what he anticipates will be major jumps in traffic and consumption.

Whereas in 2010, IDC estimated that 302.6 million smartphones and 18 million tablets were shipped, the global forecasts for 2014 reached 1.2 billion phones and 270.5 million tablets. Pointing to Akamai State of the Internet data, Michel said average peak connection speed was 23.2 Megabits per second in the fourth quarter of 2013, versus 6.8 Mbps during the 2010 World Cup.

“That greatly reduces the spinning wheel of death,” he said, while also noting that there was a 72% jump in overall traffic for the Sochi Winter Olympics this past February from the 2012 London Summer Games. “With Europe heavily engaged, there will be a big spike for the World Cup.”

Fox executives will also be making their way to South America, on a reconnaissance mission of sorts as they prepare for the 2015 Women’s World Cup next year in Canada and for Russia in 2018. Telemundo officials would not disclose its executives’ itineraries.


But that’s getting ahead of the matter at hand, where Brazil, at press time, was still trying to put the finishing touches on different stadia.

That may be par for the World Cup course, though. “They were still working on the roads leading to Soccer City [in South Africa] the day before the tournament started,” ESPN senior vice president and executive producer Jedd Drake noted.

Network planners are also preparing for the potential for protests and demonstrations emanating from the impoverished in a land of great economic disparity. Disney executives have said they plan to address the issue and cover any such incidents as part of the company’s overall coverage.

Univision’s Rodriguez said there are various scenarios in mind. “Plan A is where everything goes smoothly in Brazil,” he said, but Univision will marshal all entertainment, news and sports division resources under Plan B to present an accurate account of what’s taking place if things get somewhat out of hand on the ground.

Conversely, if things become too dangerous, Plan C calls for Univision to broadcast the tournament from Miami.