Skipper: World Cup Audience Not Dependent On U.S. Success

ESPN president says network will maintain soccer presence despite losing Cup rights to Fox
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New York – When the United States national team heads to Brazil next month for the 2014 World Cup, they will face an uphill climb, one that many soccer analysts predict will end in the group stage.

Despite the tough draw for the Americans, ESPN president John Skipper expects the audience will continue watching even if the U.S. doesn’t make it out of Group G, which many have dubbed the “Group of Death.”

That group includes heavyweights Portugal and Germany, as well as Ghana, who is no slouch and was the country that eliminated the U.S. in 2010.

“This event is not going to tail off if the U.S. loses in the group stage or in the first knockout round,” said Skipper on Friday, noting that 2010’s Final between Spain and The Netherlands still drew robust viewership.

Skipper, along with a slew of ESPN executives and on-air talent, were at the Paley Center to promote ESPN’s coverage of the month-long tournament, which kicks off June 12. “We don’t sit around with clenched fists going ‘oh my good, if the U.S. doesn’t win we have a problem.’”

Former national team member Alexi Lalas—one of USA soccer’s biggest cheerleaders—spoke about the platform that a major event such as the World Cup can provide, considering the national team’s infancy with the sport compared to the rest of the world.

“If you waste it, it doesn’t mean that soccer is going away, but if you grab ahold of it, it can do some wonderful things,” he said. “It’s not the ‘end of days’ if they don’t get out of the group.”

Seth Adler, senior director of marketing for ESPN, said that their research has found that 41% of Americans consider themselves fans of professional soccer and Argentine star Lionel Messi was ranked #7 in a recent poll of most popular athletes, the first time a soccer player cracked the top ten.

“We can say that we are a soccer nation, and that’s not something we could have said 12 years ago,” Adler said. He added that the time zones in Brazil, which are only an hour or two difference, are the best for a U.S. audience in 20 years, when the tournament was held in the U.S.

The 2014 version of the World Cup will be ESPN’s last, as Fox gains the rights beginning with next summer’s Women’s tournament. Skipper promised that ESPN will continue to have a soccer presence once the tournament is over, mentioning that rights for the English Premier League and La Liga are up for bidding in the next couple of years. He also reiterated that he expects a new rights deal with Major League Soccer.

“By all accounts, soccer is an ascendant sport,” he said. “We have to be there.”

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