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ESPN Anticipates More World Cup Growth in 2014 Before Rights Expire

Execs from the cable network, which lost its bid for the 2018 and 2022 games to Fox, say Rio de Janeiro will be significantly boosted from Cape Town in 2010 thanks to proximate time zones and growing U.S. interest.

World Cup Horizontal - H 2013
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World Cup soccer

ESPN will again be the home of U.S. FIFA World Cup coverage in 2014 -- an exclusivity it shares with Univision. The Brazil games mark the last on the cable network's current deal after Fox Sports and Telemundo outbid the Disney sports giant for 2018 and 2022 coverage.

And ESPN expects to pass the torch on a high note.

Network SVP and EP of event production Jed Drake met with reporters at the Television Critics Association winter press tour on Saturday, where he said internal ratings predictions are up quite a bit from the 2010 games in Cape Town, South Africa.

"I can't give you an exact number in terms of percentage increase," said Drake, "but it is significant over 2010."

A number of factors work in ESPN's favor, but none are likely bigger than the timing of the games. When the tournament starts on June 12, Rio de Janeiro will only be one hour ahead of the Eastern Time Zone. Primetime games will start at 6 p.m. on the East Coast and 3 p.m. on the West Coast.

"You don't have to sneak out of work, go to the bar, and then go back to work," said ESPN soccer analyst Alexi Lalas. "You can go to the bar, drink and keep drinking."

The comment prompted laughs, but soccer is one of the more communally viewed sports. Drake said that it could be argued that it's more of a cultural event than a sporting one. "It's going to be one of the greatest parties you've seen in the world," Lalas said.

ESPN also has a stronger U.S. team in its corner this time around -- and an increased awareness for the most popular sport on the planet, which continues to be ignored by many Americans. "There's no question that this event has the stature of the Super Bowl and then some, if I may," he said.

Stateside World Cup ratings jumped 41 percent in 2010 from the 2006 games. The final was watched by 15.5 million viewers on ESPN sister network ABC and 8.8 million viewers on Univision.

Another, less serious logistic that Drake cited is the anticipated absence of vuvuzelas. The plastic horns, which drowned out commentary during much of the Cape Town games, became the ire of American viewers during the 2010 World Cup. Drake thinks the bigger sound issue in Rio will be the screams of the crowds.

"We just got done in June televising the Confederations Cup, which is the dress rehearsal for the World Cup," Drake said. "The vuvuzelas were not as much of a distraction as they were in 2010."

ESPN will start World Cup promotions as early as April, when it debuts 30 for 30 documentary spinoff, Soccer Stories, from filmmakers Alex Gibney and Brett Ratner.