For World Cup, ESPN goes big and goes online

What does ESPN do when four TV channels aren't enough for the biggest World Cup the US has ever seen? Go digital.

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
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Joan E. Solsman
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Alexi Lalas, analyst and 1994 US Men's National Team member, and Jed Drake, ESPN's executive producer of event production Getty Images

To sum up ESPN's expectations for the 2014 World Cup, Bimal Kapadia -- an executive at the sports television giant's online soccer arm ESPN FC -- had trouble getting the proper sentiment across without hyperbole.

"Projections are gigantic," said Kapadia, ESPN FC's senior director of global business and brand development. "ESPN is expecting this to be the biggest event in the history of the world."

He wasn't being hysterical, just wry. In the US, the 2014 World Cup is expected to be the most-watched soccer competition ever, thanks to host city Rio de Janeiro's handy time zone, changing demographics, the sport's growing popularity in this country and -- importantly -- the willingness of companies like ESPN to let digital run free. Like NBC's all-inclusive online approach to the Sochi Olympics in February, ESPN beefed up the digital side to its World Cup coverage while integrating it more deeply with its televised coverage than ever before, underscoring how media giants are embracing the idea that giving away the goods online only helps.

So long as you're already paying for ESPN, that is.

The new ESPN FC

ESPN relaunched ESPN FC -- the world's fourth most-visited online football property, according to ComScore -- a week ago with a new website, app, advertising strategy, and aggressive content plan -- all within two week's of worldwide football's mammoth event.

The app will feel familiar to anyone who uses ESPN's SportCenter app, with the ESPN FC version sharing the same base code. The new site is responsive across desktop, smartphone and tablet devices and is laid out like a feed of story cells where ESPN can plug in any kind of media -- article, video, polls, and so on. Though ESPN's biggest market is the United States, ESPN FC relaunched with a global audience in mind: The new site and app have a slew of "editions" that let you choose the language and the country that you're most interested in and will be curated for locally relevant content.

Geographic identification means that if your phone knows where you are, the app will automatically pull up the appropriate edition, which you can adjust on your own. You can also set favorite teams in the app, which will create an inbox that will store all stories you missed since last app sign in and also trigger alerts for the most noteworthy events -- if a star player on your team gets a red card, your phone can let you know. For the 2010 World Cup, all ESPN had were English and Spanish language versions.

ESPN is also putting live video for all games online. Not only will all 64 matches be live on ESPN, ESPN2, or ABC -- which is also owned by ESPN parent Disney -- but they'll all also be available live online, with the ESPN FC website hosting an embedded video player from WatchESPN and the ESPN FC app taking users straight to live video in the WatchESPN or WatchABC apps. All matches will be available online in Portuguese via ESPN Deportes as well, including some that won't get broadcast airplay.


Changing tides

The online availability partly reflects how much viewing habits have changed since the 2010 South Africa tournament. At that time, 113 million people watch ESPN and ABC World Cup coverage, according to Seth Ader, ESPN's senior director of sports marketing. Since then, smartphone penetration has risen from 67 million to 160 million, he said; tablets have rocketed from 13 million to 119 million in four years.

With ESPN's broad online-video availability, the fact soccer is generally played in daylight, and the Rio de Janeiro time zone lining up well with North America -- the best time zone for US viewing in 20 years -- "we fully expect workplace productivity to plummet," Ader said.

ESPN's online-video availability is also a tip of the hat to NBC's success with a similar strategy for the Sochi Olympics earlier this year. People watched 10.8 million hours of video on NBC Olympics' digital platforms during Sochi, more than triple the number of hours of video streamed for the Vancouver games in 2010. The live stream of the Olympic men's ice hockey semifinal between the US and Canada generated more than 2.1 million unique users -- believed to be the largest "TV Everywhere" verified streaming audience in U.S. history, according to NBC and Adobe Analytics.

Even with so much live video available online ahead of the delayed prime time broadcast, NBC prime time viewership was 6 percent higher on average in 2014 than the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, the last time a winter Olympics couldn't be broadcast live during prime time.

The authentication wall

Finally, part of the reason ESPN and NBC are both so willing to put up so much video online is the entrenchment of authentication -- the term for vetting viewers by requiring login credentials from a pay-TV provider. It means only people who already pay a company like a cable or satellite provider to get ESPN on their televisions can access the live video content online.


That puts a ton of tantalizing video just beyond the grasp of "cord cutters," the small contingent of people forsaking a pay-TV service to cobble together online-only alternatives.

Authentication was still a nascent concept in 2010 during the last World Cup and Winter Olympics, but today most major pay-TV providers are on board. ESPN has deals with Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Dish -- three of the top four pay-TV providers by subscribers. (No. 2 DirecTV remains glaringly absent.)

The proliferation of authentication deals has made online video availability feel safe for content rights holders like ESPN and the distributors they rely upon like Comcast -- the people who will watch have already paid up.

And those paying subscribers are watching a lot online. Authenticated live viewing represented the vast majority of online NBC video watched during the Winter Olympics -- about 80% of the video was through a "TV Everywhere" authenticated live stream on NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports Live Extra app.

Though authentication creates a wall separating those who can watch online from those who can't, for ESPN it has fostered an environment that has allowed lines to blur between studio production and digital media.

"The idea behind this is that our World Cup production is not just a TV play any more, it's a multimedia presentation," said Kapadia "They're realizing that they have so much content, where else can you put it? FC is becoming an extension of TV."