In my years of writing for sports media, ESPN’s presentation of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa represents the highest level of sports production I have witnessed for a soccer broadcast in the United States. . The level of ambition exceeded all previous presentations of the World Cup in the United States.
Given the company’s DNA with the event and global football, would ESPN make an aggressive bid for future World Cup rights when they return in 2030? During a 50-minute interview last week with Jimmy Pitaro, the ESPN president didn’t hesitate.
“Absolutely,” Pitaro said. “Hard stop. Without any reservations.
“If the rights came in for the World Cup (2026), I would say the same,” Pitaro continued. “It’s a fantastic game and the group of (ESPN President of Programming and Original Content) Burke Magnus did a fantastic job securing some really great international rights which drove ESPN+ forward and really helped us get there. where we are right now. I think football is part of ESPN’s identity today. If you’re a football fan now, you practically have to have ESPN+. Yes, we’re all into sports. So the answer to your question is yes, whenever they’re ready to talk, we’re ready to sit down with them.
ESPN currently has a ton of football rights, including some rights to the US national team, La Liga (Spain), Bundesliga (Germany) and Eredivise (Netherlands). The network remains in negotiations with MLS for a linear television deal following the Apple-MLS announcement.
The 2010 World Cup was the first time in ESPN history that all of its World Cup studio programming was sourced onsite from the host nation site. This included “SportsCenter” segments, “World Cup Live” nighttime broadcasts, and pre-, half-time and post-game broadcasts. The company had two studios in and around Johannesburg and used its best hosts to host. One of those hosts was Bob Ley, who produced some of the best newscasts ESPN has done from a foreign land. The company has invested resources to report the undersides of the World Cup in addition to the beauty of South Africa and the football tournament. ESPN assigned several general correspondents for the event, including a reporter specifically assigned to human interest stories in South Africa. Broadcasters calling the tournament were Ian Darke, Adrian Healey, Derek Rae and Martin Tyler – a ridiculously talented foursome. Pre-match segments included teams marching onto the pitch, the national anthems and ceremonial handshakes – something now commonplace but never done in full before for a World Cup. The original soundtrack for the tournament’s television music? U2 and the Soweto Gospel Choir of South Africa. I could go on, but that gives you an idea of the scale. The goal, according to then ESPN president John Skipper, a huge football fan, was to produce a football show that looked like the Olympics. They succeeded.
ESPN would soon be out of World Cup business. In 2011, for a record fee of just under $1 billion, Fox secured the rights to broadcast the 2018 and 2022 World Cups in the United States. ESPN was an active bidder, but Fox made a higher bid, and FIFA will always be FIFA when it comes to the money. In 2015, FIFA announced that it had extended US media rights deals with Fox and Telemundo until the 2026 World Cup. This deal came without a tender and will now be a boon for Fox given that the tournament will take place in the United States, Canada and Mexico. Has Fox reached the levels of ESPN’s presentation of South Africa 2010? No. But they’ve been good stewards of the World Cup, especially the Women’s World Cup.
The next rights available for the Men’s World Cup will be for 2030. In the world we live in, there will be more interested parties bidding, and that likely includes behemoths such as Amazon and Apple as well as players traditional such as Fox, Warner. Discovery Brothers and ViacomCBS.
(Photo of midfielder Corentin Tolisso celebrating France’s 2018 World Cup title: Tim Groothuis/Witters Sport via USA Today)