NEW YORK — ESPN executives gushed about the World Cup on Friday with no hint they are a lame-duck broadcaster when it comes to the tournament.
The tournament in Brazil, which opens June 12, is the sixth straight World Cup that ESPN will televise in the U.S. — and the last for at least a dozen years. Fox won the rights to the 2018 and 2022 tournaments.
In the meantime, ESPN still is committed to soccer, said its president, John Skipper.
"We have to be there," he said.
That's vital with the way the sport's popularity is growing with American viewers. The average rating for World Cup games on ESPN networks increased 31 percent between the 2006 and 2010 tournaments.
The numbers for international matches have kept going up ever since, and Skipper is particularly mindful of surveys that show the high interest in soccer among younger viewers.
ESPN has the 2016 European Championship in France, and it's "on the precipice" of a new deal with Major League Soccer, Skipper said. ESPN and Fox share U.S. rights to European qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup.
But the big targets on the horizon are the English Premier League and Spain's La Liga. NBC is finishing the first season of a three-year deal with the Premier League, so the next round of negotiations will come around again soon.
ESPN has invited Fox executives to observe its production in Brazil for "a proper handoff," Skipper said.
ESPN is dedicating its vast resources to covering the tournament, with 290 hours of original programming planned — up from 250 four years ago. That's an easy decision even with its shortage of soccer content after the World Cup. And not just because of the way the audience has been swelling.
Unlike South Africa, Brazil presents no time zone problems, with games played in the afternoon and evening on the East Coast in the U.S. And the setting is alluring in a country so passionate about soccer.
"I think the numbers are going to be up fairly dramatically," Skipper said.
Even if the U.S. team fails to advance from the group stage, a very real possibility since the Americans face Ghana, Portugal and Germany. While viewership wasn't quite as robust after the U.S. was eliminated in 2010, the rating for the final on ABC was up 6 percent from the previous World Cup — another sign of the sport's growth in the country.
"We don't sit around with clenched fists going, 'Oh my gosh, if the U.S. doesn't win we have a problem,'" Skipper said.
He also is optimistic that Mexico will advance, and ESPN has been treating "El Tri" as a sort of second national team considering the big audiences the squad draws in the U.S.
For the first time, ESPN will stream every game online, leading senior director of marketing Seth Ader to quip: "We fully expect workplace productivity to plummet."
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