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TheStreet Open House

World Cup Proves ESPN Can't Juggle Sports

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- There is a reason why ESPN won't be showing the World Cup in 2018 and sports fans got a glimpse of it last week.

When there's an empty slate for World Cup matches, as there was for semifinal matchups on Tuesday and Wednesday, ESPN has no problem putting those matches on its flagship station and running with them. When another big, heavily sponsored property gets in the way, however, ESPN has no problem relegating the world's premier sporting even to a third-tier offering.

On the Fourth of July, Disney's television wing ran into a little problem. It was still a weekday, so ABC had no intention of dumping Good Morning America and a live performance by Jason DeRulo for sports. GMA averaged 5.5 million viewers per airing in the second quarter. However, ESPN found itself having to host tennis' Wimbledon men's semifinal and the World Cup quarterfinal between France and Germany at the same time. Somehow, the World Cup got knocked back to ESPN2 while Wimbledon plodded along on ESPN.

On paper, there's an argument to be made for that decision. A tennis Grand Slam semifinal should get preference over another sport's quarterfinal, especially when Wimbledon's well-to-do audience attracts high-end sponsors like IBM (IBM), HSBC  (HSEB)Hertz  (HTZ), Lanson Champagne, Ralph Lauren (RL), Evian, Jacob's Creek wine, Lavazza coffee and Anheuser-Busch InBev's  (BUD) premium Belgian beer brand Stella Artois.

Oh, and there's the small fact that ESPN paid $500 million to end NBC's 43-year relationship with Wimbledon and broadcast all matches live for 12 years. By comparison, ESPN paid a scant $100 million for the English-language rights to the World Cup for 2010 and 2014. But just because Wimbledon is pricey and cloaked in Ralph Lauren doesn't mean anyone's going to watch it.

As ESPN learned, the U.S. has a whole lot more interest in athletes from other countries who play soccer than those who hold tennis rackets. The audience for the France-Germany match absolutely crushed that of the Wimbledon semifinal, with an average of 4.23 million viewers tuning in to soccer at 11:30 a.m. Eastern -- compared to an average of just 1.2 million for six hours of Wimbledon men's semifinal matches. The World Cup matchup between Brazil and Colombia that followed Wimbledon on ESPN immediately perked up the ratings by drawing an average of 5.7 million viewers.

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