ESPN President Predicts World Cup Ratings 'Up Dramatically' From 2010

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ESPN is gearing up for its most gargantuan production yet with comprehensive multi-network, digital and radio coverage of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, which begins in 41 days.

And ESPN president John Skipper is predicating that ratings for the title match on July 13 will be "up dramatically" compared to the 2010 game between Spain and the Netherlands, which was watched by 15.5 million viewers on ABC.

Soccer has gradually grown in popularity in the U.S., though interest pales compared to the rabid fandom in Europe and Latin America. And Skipper -- a soccer guy and Tottenham Hotspur fan -- expressed little concern that the U.S. team's weak prospects would sap interest during the course of the tournament. "We're not sitting around with clenched fists," he said. "This event is not going to tail off if the U.S. loses."

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All 64 matches will air live on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Deportes and ABC, beginning June 12 with the Brazil-Croatia match on ESPN. ABC will air a handful of weekend matches culminating with the July 13 title match in Rio de Janeiro. ESPN digital will make all matches available live on the Watch ESPN app and WatchESPN.com. Matches airing on ABC will be available on WatchABC in available markets.

The company also will offer a companion viewing experience for every telecast via ESPN3 Surround, with multiple language offerings (including Portuguese and Koran) and two alternate camera feeds: tactical cams for a high and wide view of the pitch and real-time highlight reels that will update as big moments happen during every live match.

"It's the most complex production plan that we've ever mounted at this company bar none," said Jed Drake, senior vp and executive producer of ESPN World Cup.

Drake also produced ESPN's coverage of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. But ESPN will be without FIFA soccer after the Brazil World Cup; Fox won the rights to the 2018 and 2022 tournaments for close to $500 million, while NBCUniversal's Telemundo poached the Spanish-language rights from Univision for $600 million. That's a combined $1.1 billion and an increase of nearly 150 percent over the current deals.

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Skipper has been open about his disappointment in losing World Cup soccer to Fox. But he said that would not affect the network's commitment to their final World Cup. "It's a great event. We care about soccer," said Skipper, adding that he's invited Fox Sports executives including president and COO Eric Shanks to be his guests in Brazil. "Our goal here is to leave with a very high bar," added Skipper.

But ESPN won't be without soccer entirely. News broke in January that ESPN and Fox are expected to announce new rights deals with Major League Soccer, which will leave NBC Sports Network in 2015. (NBCSN also now has the Premiere League.) And on Friday at ESPN's World Cup media briefing in New York, Skipper noted that ESPN is "on the precipice of getting a deal done" with MLS. But he added, "it's the longest I've ever been on a precipice."

And Skipper and Drake stressed that ESPN will aggressively cover the news that has emerged heading into Brazil including child prostitution, questions about the readiness of the various venues and continuing anti-government demonstrations.

"We'll cover those stories proactively," said Skipper. "We won't need a protest to happen."

ABC News anchor Bob Woodruff will report from Brazil for ESPN and ABC News. And Skipper noted that the producer in the control room truck will not need the OK from an executive to cut to breaking news. "If you're in the truck, you don't need to call an executive. [Producers] will have the freedom to make those calls. I don't have a red phone."

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