Will ESPN go after the 2030 World Cup? ‘Absolutely,’ boss Jimmy Pitaro says

In my years of writing about sports media, ESPN’s presentation of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa represents the highest level of sports production I’ve witnessed for a soccer broadcast in the United States. The ambition level exceeded any previous World Cup presentation in the United States.

Given the company’s DNA with the event and global soccer, would ESPN aggressively bid for future World Cup rights when they come up again in 2030? During a 50-minute interview last week with Jimmy Pitaro, the ESPN chairman did not hesitate.

“Absolutely,” Pitaro said. “Hard stop. Without any reservations.

“If the rights were coming up for the (2026) World Cup, I would say the same thing,” Pitaro continued. “It’s a fantastic game and (ESPN president of programming and original content) Burke Magnus’ group has done a fantastic job at acquiring really great international rights that have moved the needle for ESPN+ and really helped us get to where we are right now. I think soccer is part of the identity today of ESPN. If you’re a soccer fan now, you pretty much have to have ESPN+. Yeah, we’re all in on the sport. So the answer to your question is yes. Whenever they’re ready to talk, we’re ready to sit down with them.”

ESPN has a ton of soccer rights currently, including select US national team rights, La Liga (Spain), Bundesliga (Germany) and the Eredivise (Netherlands). The network remains in negotiations with MLS for a linear TV deal following the Apple-MLS announcement.

The 2010 World Cup was the first time in ESPN’s history that the entirety of its World Cup studio programming originated on location from the site of the host country. That included “SportsCenter” segments, nightly “World Cup Live” shows, and pre-, halftime and post-match shows. The company had two studio sets in and around Johannesburg and used their top hosts to host. One of those hosts was Bob Ley, who produced some of the best television journalism ESPN has done from a foreign country. The company invested resources to report on the underbelly of the World Cup in addition to the beauty of South Africa and the soccer tournament. ESPN assigned multiple general assignment correspondents for the event, including one reporter specifically assigned to human interest stories in South Africa. The broadcasters calling the tournament were Ian Darke, Adrian Healey, Derek Rae and Martin Tyler — a ridiculously skilled foursome. Prematch segments included teams walking onto the pitch, the national anthems, and ceremonial handshakes — something now commonplace but had never been done in full before for a World Cup. The television music soundtrack for the tournament? U2 and South Africa’s own Soweto Gospel Choir. I could continue but this gives you a sense of scale. The goal, according to then-ESPN president John Skipper, a massive soccer fan, was to produce a soccer broadcast that felt like the Olympics. They succeeded.

ESPN would soon be out of the World Cup business. In 2011, for a record sum of just below $1 billion, Fox won the rights to broadcast the 2018 and 2022 World Cups in the United States. ESPN was an active bidder but Fox bid higher, and FIFA will always be FIFA when it comes to money. In 2015, FIFA announced it had extended US media rights agreements with Fox and Telemundo through the 2026 World Cup. That deal came without competitive bidding and will now be a bonanza for Fox given the tournament will be held in the United States, Canada and Mexico. Has Fox reached the levels of ESPN’s presentation of 2010 South Africa? No. But they have been a good steward of the World Cup, especially the Women’s World Cup.

The next available men’s World Cup soccer rights will be for 2030. In the world we live in, there will be more interested parties in bidding on them, and that likely includes behemoths such as Amazon and Apple along with traditional players such as Fox, Warner BrothersDiscovery and ViacomCBS.

(Photo of midfielder Corentin Tolisso celebrating France’s 2018 World Cup title: Tim Groothuis/Witters Sport via USA Today)

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