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.

The World Cup matches and the ESPN and ESPN2 programming they led into topped the Friday cable ratings and decimated every other sport aired that day. ESPN's Major League Baseball holiday game special only managed about 811,000 viewers on average, which placed it behind a SyFy Twilight Zone showing that drew 848,000 viewers. By comparison, a rain-delayed race in Nascar's second-tier Nationwide series drew 1.75 million viewers on average.

With baseball and Nascar, the decision again came down to money. In 2012, ESPN and Major League Baseball signed an eight-year agreement worth $700 million a year that not only gave the network greater access to games, but guaranteed it a postseason wild-card matchup each year. Conversely, this year marks the end of an eight-year ESPN deal with Nascar that saw it share a $4.8 billion bid with TNT and Fox  (FOXA) and shift Nationwide races to ESPN's lesser-viewed ESPNews network when it had too many other events on ESPN and ESPN2. Fox and NBC will be taking over Nascar and Nationwide duties when their new 10-year, $8.2 billion deal goes into effect in 2015.

The World Cup is exposing what's been a problem with ESPN for a good, long while: The breadth of its sports content and the amount it's paying for that content is greater than its ecosystem's hierarchy can allow. It is paying $1.9 billion a year through 2021 to host the National Football League's Monday Night Football. It paid $7.2 billion exclusive rights to college football's playoffs through 2026 and has deals with college football's Atlantic Coast Conference ($3.6 billion), Southeast Conference ($2.3 billion), Big 12 ($2.5 billion), PAC-12 ($3 billion) and Big 10 ($1 billion).

It's sharing Major League Soccer and U.S. national team duties with Fox in a $600 million deal that runs through 2026 and has rights to NBA games that will cost it $3.9 billion through 2016. It's also locked up Wimbledon, the French Open, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open as well as golf's Masters Tournament.

That's making it really difficult to juggle each league's interests while looking out for its own viewership concerns. ESPN didn't mind seeing NBC lock up the National Hockey League and its average 500,000 viewers per match for 10 years and $2 billion, but it should be more concern that the Peacock took away its English Premier League coverage for $250 million over two seasons and is seeing about 800,000 to 1.2 million viewers tune in each Saturday morning.

It also should worry about Fox's growing sports ecosystem that just bought the English-language rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cup, secured the rights to the German Bundesliga soccer league, cornered the rights to the UEFA Champions League, nailed down the CONCACAF Gold Cup through 2015 and took half of the U.S. national team and MLS broadcast rights. Combined with its NFL, MLB, Nascar, Ultimate Fighting Championship, college football conference championships, and PAC-12 and Big East basketball championships, those soccer buys take dead aim at ESPN's crowded lineup and bet big on soccer's young and growing demographic.

After ESPN watched its World Cup ratings soar nearly 50% from 2010 and watched the World Cup outperform a whole lot of its other, more expensive offerings, it has to have some idea of what it's losing and why the World Cup is leaving. Then again, maybe it's too distracted by its upcoming Monday Night Football schedule and college football kickoffs to notice that it's dropping the ball on some of the more popular sports it's juggling.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Jason Notte.

>To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/notteham.

>To submit a news tip, send an email to: tips@thestreet.com.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Jason Notte.

>To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/notteham.

>To submit a news tip, send an email to: tips@thestreet.com.

 

Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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