By RACHEL COHEN
AP Sports Writer
NEW YORK — Knowledgeable U.S. soccer fans – it’s not an oxymoron.
ESPN is making a huge investment in World Cup coverage, paying $100 million for the rights to the 2010 and 2014 tournaments, based on the conviction that not only do Americans know the beautiful game, they want all they can get.
The 2006 tournament on ESPN and ABC drew the largest audiences for a World Cup outside the United States. But research afterward showed the network could do more to show fans it’s taking the sport seriously.
Now the network is trying to do just that, and to attract even more viewers, despite the time zone challenges of this year’s event in South Africa, which is six hours ahead of New York and nine hours ahead of Los Angeles.
“The simple math of ratings, if you can take that audience and get them to watch for a longer period of time, it has the same effect as growing the number of viewers,” said Jed Drake, executive producer for ESPN’s World Cup coverage. “We really have targeted our presentation now for a knowledgeable soccer audience.”
The same network that drew criticism for calling 20 matches from U.S. studios four years ago is putting together a staff of 300 people to produce the event in South Africa. ESPN has hired British announcers and plans 65 hours of live studio programming from Johannesburg.
“We have a production plan that we think is up to the level of ambition of this event with a great group of commentators that we’ve assembled, a broadcast operation that is far and away the biggest we’ve ever amassed outside of the U.S.,” Drake said.
The ESPN compound at the International Broadcast Center in Johannesburg is massive, dwarfing that of any other operation. A large bullpen is filled with editors and writers, with more than a dozen big-screen TVs on the walls. There are four editing suites and three control rooms, the largest of which has 10 high-definition screens that show everything ESPN is doing.
“You look at the footprint of this facility and we are, shall we say, quite large,” Drake said. “It’s just part of the commitment. You only do something at this level with the best equipment and the best people.”
ESPN also has an expansive set overlooking the Soccer City stadium, where ‘SportsCenter‘ will be broadcast live, and an open-air patio that can be the site for live reports for ‘Good Morning America‘ or one of ABC’s other shows. ESPN and ABC are owned by The Walt Disney Co.
Former national team captain John Harkes, who will work as a commentator on all of the U.S. team’s games, said Americans have learned to watch soccer differently in recent years, and that knowledge will influence how they follow this World Cup.
“It’s not that we’re just going to see the games,” he said of soccer fans in the U.S. “Now I’m going to see the games and I understand what’s happening, and why that player’s there.”
The real test of America’s passion for soccer begins at 10 a.m. EDT this Friday, when the World Cup will kick off with South Africa playing Mexico live from Johannesburg.
Much of ESPN’s unprecedented coverage in the United States will come at times when TV viewers are typically at work, asleep or otherwise away from their sets. Most games are scheduled to start at 7:30 a.m., 10 a.m. or 2:30 p.m. on the East Coast – that’s 4:30 a.m., 7 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. out West.
ESPN’s gamble relies on more than games, saturating its various platforms with coverage that might drive more people to watch morning matches or pique their interest if they miss them. The network is planning more than 230 hours of live original programming. A little more than half will be games, but the rest – at more viewer-friendly hours – will be commentary and other material.
In the end, the hope is this nation will love the game.
“That was the revelation to a lot of people in 2006 when we had the biggest audience ever,” said Rob Hunter, ESPN’s vice president for digital technology. “I will be surprised if we don’t have even more people this year say, ‘Wow, those guys can play. They can really play.’”
Of course, the country has been slow to embrace soccer despite the presence of the World Cup on U.S. soil in 1994 or the signing of David Beckham with the Los Angeles Galaxy of the MLS.
All games will also be re-aired in prime time on ESPN Classic. And then there’s all the planned radio, online and mobile coverage.
Research by Nielsen found that 23 percent of American fans planned to keep up with the tournament with their mobile phone – especially if they can’t watch the games live on TV.
Nine games will be broadcast on a weekend afternoon in the Eastern time zone, a more traditional sports-watching time; that includes England-United States on June 12 and the final. And all the matches will be on ESPN Mobile and most on ESPN3.com.
In an era when the TV ratings for many American sporting events can fluctuate widely depending on who’s playing and how much drama they’re ensnared in, the World Cup likely won’t be any different. A deep run by the U.S. team would naturally pull in viewers.
“The games will determine what the real story is,” Hunter said. “Our viewership in the U.S. will really be a function of the games. We know we’re creating a great platform. Our coverage plans for this World Cup are extraordinary. If the games themselves match the coverage plan, the audience results will be outstanding.”
AP Sports Writer Nancy Armour in Johannesburg contributed to this story.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed