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Eighteen months before sending a crew of almost 200 to South Africa for its World Cup broadcasts, the U.S. sports cable network ESPN produced something it called the Soccer Summit. This was a much smaller affair, though in some ways just as momentous. Because in the fall of 2008, as network executives convened a kind of elite focus group at a loft in the Tribeca neighbourhood of Manhattan that included soccer reporters from the Associated Press and The New York Times, on-air announcers, and sports merchandisers like Adidas and Nike, the agenda touched on the future of broadcasting for the sport in the United States.

Soccer may be the world's most popular sport, but it remains a niche player in the U.S., and by some measures ESPN was already back on its heels.

With its broadcast partner ABC, the network had thrown down a bet of about $100-million (U.S.) on the rights to the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, just as the cooling U.S. economy was prompting urgent questions about the likelihood of landing large advertising contracts. Worse, hard-core soccer fans had beaten up the network over its handling of the 2006 tournament in Germany, from the shallow knowledge of some announcers to the cost-cutting choice to have the play-by-play on many of its broadcasts called from a studio in the U.S.

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But during that one-day summit, the network doubled down on its bet, charting a striking new course that would set the tone for all of its World Cup activities: not just its broadcasts, which kick off Saturday with the U.S. vs. Australia exhibition match featuring the esteemed Martin Tyler calling the play-by-play, but its promotional efforts as well. "This is the most comprehensive marketing plan we've put together behind a single event in ESPN's 30-year history," says Seth Ader, the network's senior director of sports marketing.

Taking a page from the playbook of NBC, which had successfully leveraged the mystery and appeal of China in its recent broadcast of the Beijing Olympics, ESPN decided to make South Africa a key pillar of its marketing for the 2010 soccer tournament, drafting not only Hugh Masekela to oversee its use of music but also his son Sal to be a roving cultural correspondent during the broadcasts.

They hired a witness to the Soweto uprisings to consult on any material that touched on the country's troubled political history. "If one word came out of that soccer summit that became our rallying cry for the next two years, it's 'authenticity,'" said Mr. Ader.

So far, that commitment to authenticity seems to be paying off, with enormous goodwill emerging from its decision to use South African talent in its efforts, including the Soweto Gospel Choir, and a local design collective for one of its signature initiatives, a series of 32 murals in the style of a Ghanaian movie poster depicting each of the competing teams.

The network's chief goal, says Mr. Ader, was to assure the hard-core fans it was serious about its coverage. "They don't need to be sold on the World Cup. This is an every-four-year holiday for them. This is very important, they take it very seriously. They schedule their lives around it. We've heard stories of weddings being rescheduled, vacations being planned, so this is a really big deal. We don't need to sell them on the majesty and the pageantry of the World Cup. What we needed to do for them is to let them know ESPN was going to bring its 'A game.'"

"This niche is not only the highest contribution to our rating because of the time they spend with us in minutes, but they also become our biggest evangelists. We think of this group not as an endgame, but using them to preach the gospel, so to speak, to the rest of the country."

In the four years since the last World Cup, of course, social media has exploded, enabling the network to seed grassroots enthusiasm by providing its 340,000 Facebook fans (a group expanding daily) with sneak peeks at some of its commercials and other features. It is equipping street teams with posters and other promotional items and sending them out to restaurants in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. that specialize in the cuisines of the countries represented at the World Cup.

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"Soccer right now is at an interesting point in this country; we sort of liken it to a club," says Mr. Ader. "You want the club to be exclusive and you want there to be some demand to get into the club, but you don't want everyone going because then it's not exclusive. So right now we're at the point where the club is exclusive and there's a line to get in, but hasn't yet gotten packed or overflowing with people, but we're quickly approaching that point, we think."

As in 2006, ESPN has again teamed with U2 - a band that wears an African halo because of the work by some of its members on development issues - to provide the soundtrack for its commercials. Developed by the network's long-time agency Wieden & Kennedy, one spot tells an uplifting story about a soccer league that blossomed on Robben Island, where South African political prisoners were held during apartheid. Another highlights some of the world's best players who have worn the number 10 jersey for their teams. It's all part of what the network calls "respectful education," walking a fine line to engage both its core of passionate fans and the far larger audience who tune in to big sporting events if they're convinced they can't afford to miss them.

Both types of fans are targeted with the team murals, each of which tells a story about the team being depicted. "The murals are designed to give people a very short snapshot of each team," says Mr. Ader, "to give them one or two things to think about and hopefully that'll translate into greater interest and greater engagement."

"If you stopped someone on the street and asked what games they're gonna watch, it's the usual suspects: U.S., England, Spain, Brazil, Germany. But we've got 64 matches to promote, so we just can't rely on those main powerhouses to carry the day for us, we've got to create interest in all 64 games."

Even if the World Cup broadcasts aren't profitable on their own, ESPN sees them as part of a long-term investment strategy. With the U.S. population becoming more diverse, and Hispanics becoming a larger social and consumer force within the country (having recently surpassed African-Americans as the largest visible minority group), soccer is a natural way to court new audiences.

"We are the beneficiary of the changing demographics in this country," says Mr. Ader. "By 2050, there will be as many English speakers as there are Spanish speakers in this country. If you're in the soccer business, that's a very good thing, because to that audience, it is a social and cultural phenomenon. It's in their blood, it's in their soul - which it isn't yet amongst Anglo-U.S. Americans. But we feel in time that it'll get there."

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Senior Media Writer

Simon Houpt is the Globe and Mail's senior media writer, charged with covering the industry's transformation. He began his career with The Globe in 1999 as the paper's New York arts correspondent, covering the cultural life of that city through Canadian eyes. More

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