By Barry Janoff
May 6, 2014: ESPN, the self-proclaimed 'Worldwide Leader in Sports," is adapting its philosophy to embrace an coming event that is considered the jewel competition of soccer.
With plans that include live coverage of all 64 matches, more than 290 hours of original programming, multi-platform marketing and an all-hands-on-deck strategy that will encompass most of the media resources available to parent company Disney, ESPN can for time be called the "World Cup Leader in Sports."
The 2014 FIFA World Cup will be ESPN’s eighth and what it calls its "most comprehensive presentation to date." It also will be its last for at least the next decade, with Fox winning the rights to the 2018 (Russia) and 2022 (Qatar) World Cups.
But ESPN is not looking at the its plans for World Cup coverage — which will take place in Brazil June 12-July 13 — as the last dance, but rather an opportunity to bring soccer's biggest event and party to the U.S. and the world.
"We hold the World Cup in the highest regard, and this will be the most comprehensive coverage of a soccer event in the history of broadcasting," John Skipper, ESPN president, said during a preview event in New York's Paley Center for Media last week (May 2). "We are approaching the World Cup with great expectations and goals."
ESPN's marketing began on Jan. 1 during the Rose Bowl with an overview intro spot and has continued with TV, including a U.S.-themed "I Believe," "True Beauty" (which was voiced-over in Portuguese, the official language of Brazil) and two just-released spots, "Global Issues" and "Time Zone." Marketing support features 32 team posters for print and outdoor, mobile, Internet and social media.
Coverage will include ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN3, ESPN Radio (which will broadcast all World Cup matches live), ABC, WatchESPN and WatchABC, ESPN Deportes and ESPN FC. Support will include more than 290 hours of original programming, SportsCenter at the World Cup, a nightly World Cup Tonight program, ESPN FC World Cup Encore, ESPN Films 30 for 30: Soccer Stories series and Inside: U.S. Soccer's March to Brazil, a six-part series that runs May 13- June 11.
NYSportsJournalism spoke with Seth Ader, senior director, sports marketing for ESPN, regarding its marketing for the upcoming FIFA World Cup and lessons learned from previous coverage.
NYSportsJournalism.com: Is there a way to underestimate the impact of the FIFA World Cup and the marketing support ESPN is enacting?
Seth Ader: The World Cup is a marketer's dream. It touches so many people and provides us with a platform in which we can reach not just core soccer fans but also casual fans. And it allows us to use all of the tools we have available, from ESPN broadcasts, ESPN3 and WatchESPN to social media and apps. It encompasses the entire planet for a month, so it is hard to underestimate it.
NYSJ: What are the biggest changes you've seen in the way ESPN supports the World Cup with marketing?
SA: Back in 2002, for the World Cup (hosted by South Korea and Japan), we had one TV spot. That's the same number we had for the National Spelling Bee. At that time, we didn't understand what we were up against. In 2006, we had an epiphany (for the World Cup in Germany). We understood what people wanted. We saw that people want to interact with the World Cup on as many levels as they could. So we did more marketing across all of the platforms that were available to let people know that ESPN was the place to get the games, the inside stories and personal stories about teams and players. In 2010 (in South Africa), we really built it out in all directions, taking more advantage of social media, technology and other outlets. And now that we've been working on the World Cup in Brazil for years, we've continued to add and build and drive the marketing support to another level.
NYSJ: When planning marketing, do you use a broad brushstroke to take in everyone who might watch, or do you divide audiences into hard-core fans and everyone else?
SA: We always start with the core soccer fan in mind. Everything goes through the filter of how will the core soccer fan react to what we are saying. When we do it that way, they become your evangelists. And everyone else then wants a piece of that. When casual fans see that something great is happening, they want to be part of it. But we do speak to more than the core soccer fans. Which is why we began our World Cup campaign with advertising during [ESPN's broadcast of] the Rose Bowl. But we find that if we focus on the core fans, it broadens out to others very successfully.
NYSJ: Are ESPN spots that show Brazil beyond soccer, including the arts, music and pageantry, aimed at the core or casual fans?
SA: That is attractive to both. Soccer fans love the pageantry that comes with the game, and in most cases they are the ones who make the event extend beyond the playing field. But there also is a lot to offer to casual fans who want to watch important soccer games but also get a taste of what else may be happening.
NYSJ: You talked about how ESPN's World Cup marketing support has evolved from one spot to the multi-platform activation you have for 2014. What did you learn from Germany in 2006 and then South Africa in 2010?
SA: We really learned our lesson in 2006. What we tried to do that year with marketing was dumb it down, so to speak. We put our attention and focus on the casual fans and even non-soccer fans and went in with the concept that there was a lot they didn't know about the game. So we would say 'Soccer is like baseball,' 'Soccer is like football' And there was an uprising from the core soccer fans and the soccer community. So that's when we learned that if you take care of the core soccer fans and first and foremost, everyone else wants to be part of that. The core soccer fans are very vocal, and they will let you know when they feel as if you have wronged them, especially when it comes to the World Cup.
NYSJ: In terms of marketing, what is it that core soccer fans want to see?
SA: it covers many things that address soccer to an audience that knows and understands the game. We talk about specific upcoming match-ups of teams and players on those teams. What information they will get from the pre-and post-game shows. Highlight footage of plays that could be instrumental to upcoming games. They know the teams and players, and we want to show that ESPN also knows the sport and is supporting our coverage in ways that would enhance their knowledge and respect for soccer.
"Everything goes through the filter of how will the core soccer fan react to what we are saying. When we do it that way, they become your evangelists."
NYSJ: Technology and social media has changed a lot since 2010, so where do you see ESPN's marketing having made the biggest changes and advances in those areas?
SA: Obviously, social media is on whole other level. This will be the most social media-driven event ever. The way people will consume matches is going to be continuous. So WatchESPN will become a lifeline to all the matches. We will have ESPN apps, digital, mobile, online. Those are the first lines of communication for us to reach a huge number of people who want to consume everything there is about the World Cup.
NYSJ: What assets are you tapping into regarding in-depth profiles, off the field stories and other venues that will enhance the broadcast of the games?
SA: The beauty of this is that ESPN has a lot of tools in the tool shed. We have ESPN media, ABC media, Disney media assets. So we can do it all. We can take care of core soccer fans on our ESPN outlets. We can address kids with Disney. Women and families on SABC. So we have that luxury.
NYSJ: Will there be new marketing during the month-long course of the World Cup?
SA: Yes. We plan to have something new every day.
NYSJ: Even though ESPN does not have broadcast rights to the next World Cups, where can you take what you learn from this World Cup and utilize it?
SA: Among the soccer events we will cover, we have the 2016 European Championship in France, which is big, so we can enhance what we learn here. But I feel that what we learn in marketing from any event can be translated to other sports and events that we cover, so we certainly will take marketing lessons we learn from this World Cup to other sports and major events.
NYSJ: ESPN has put significant effort to into marketing to support the U.S. team to fans and viewers, including the "I Believe" spot and a new six-part series Inside: U.S. Soccer’s March to Brazil. But the U.S. is in a tough group. Is there a plan to market to viewers who might drop out if that happens?
SA: There is a lot of support here for the U.S. team. It is very real. But what we have tried to do is find connections between people and teams and players around the world. We are talking not just to a fan in the U.S. who wants to support the U.S. team, but all those people in the U.S. who want to follow Brazil, Germany, all the other teams and players in the tournament. We started our campaign on January 1 during coverage of the Rose Bowl because we wanted to speak to all fans about a big event during a big event. We then had another campaign, 'True Beauty', talking about the aspects of soccer and Brazil being beautiful. So all along we have been trying to build the connection not just among fans in the U.S. who support the U.S. teams, but fans who love great soccer.
NYSJ: Any World Cup predictions?
SA: We expect productivity in the U.S. to plummet during broadcasts. And we expect the IT departments to be overwhelmed.
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