In my years writing about sports media, ESPN’s presentation of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa represents the highest level of sports production I have seen for football broadcasts in the United States. The level of ambition surpassed any previous World Cup presentation in the United States.
Given the company’s DNA associated with the event and global football, will ESPN aggressively pursue future World Cup rights when they reappear in 2030? During a 50-minute interview last week with Jimmy Pitaro, the ESPN chairman didn’t hesitate.
“Absolutely,” Pitaro said. “Hard stop. Without any reservations.
“If the rights to the World Championship (2026) were suitable, I would say the same thing,” Pitaro continued. “This is a fantastic game, and the (ESPN President of Programming and Original Content) Burke Magnus team did a fantastic job of acquiring some really great international rights that propelled the needle for ESPN+ and really helped us get where we are right now. I think today football is part of the ESPN identity. If you are now a football fan, you should definitely have ESPN+. Yes, we are all in sports. So the answer to your question is yes. Whenever they are ready to speak, we are ready to sit down with them.”
ESPN currently has a raft of rights to football, including rights to select teams from the United States, La Liga (Spain), the Bundesliga (Germany) and the Eredivisie (Netherlands). The network continues to negotiate with MLS for a deal with linear TV following the Apple-MLS announcement.
The 2010 FIFA World Cup marked the first time in ESPN’s history that all of the World Cup studio programs were created within the host country. This included “SportsCenter” segments, “World Cup Live” night shows, and pre-, half-time and post-match shows. The company had two studios in and around Johannesburg and used their best hosts for accommodation. One such presenter was Bob Lay, who produced some of the best ESPN television journalism from another country. The company has invested resources to communicate highlight of the world championship in addition to the beauty of South Africa and the football tournament. ESPN has assigned several correspondents with a shared assignment for the event, including one reporter specifically assigned to stories of interest to people in South Africa. The announcers of the tournament were Ian Dark, Adrian Healey, Derek Ray and Martin Tyler – an incredibly experienced foursome. The pre-match segments included teams taking to the field, national anthems and ceremonial handshakes – now commonplace but never before done in full for the World Cup. TV soundtrack for the tournament? U2 and South Africa’s own Soweto Gospel Choir. I could go on but it gives you a sense of scale. According to then-ESPN president John Skipper, a big football fan, the goal was to create a football broadcast that would be similar to the Olympics. They succeeded.
ESPN will soon be out of the World Cup business. In 2011, for a record amount of just under US$1 billion Fox has won the rights to broadcast the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cups. In the United States. ESPN was an active bidder, but Fox offered a higher price and FIFA will always be FIFA when it comes to money. In 2015, FIFA announced it extended US media rights deals with Fox and Telemundo for the duration of the 2026 FIFA World Cup. This deal came without bidding and will now be a bonanza for Fox, given that the tournament will be held in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Has Fox reached the level of the 2010 ESPN presentation in South Africa? No. But they were good organizers of the World Cup, especially the Women’s World Cup.
The next available rights to the FIFA Men’s World Cup will be for 2030. The world we live in will have more stakeholders willing to bid and this likely includes giants like Amazon and Apple along with traditional players like Fox. Discovery Warner Bros. and ViacomCBS.
(Photo by midfielder Corentin Tolisso celebrating France’s 2018 World Cup victory: Tim Groothuis/Witters Sport via USA Today)