ESPN resources pay off at World Cup

ESPN couldn’t have scripted a more dramatic soccer story than the U.S. women's national team's quest for a World Cup title. The team's latest match against Brazil generated a lot of buzz -- with questionable calls, a red card, 30 minutes of extra time, and a goal at the last possible minute to force a penalty kick shootout -- that paid off for the network and should carry over to Wednesday's semifinals.

ESPN was in place to capitalize on the thrilling match, thanks to heavy lifting done weeks, months and even years before this week’s final games.

ESPN is betting big on soccer, securing the rights to four rotating summer championships -- the men’s World Cup, the women’s World Cup, the European Championships, and the Confederations Cup. It’s part of a larger strategy to build a U.S. audience for the sport and chip into the world market.

ESPN has a team of 200 people in Germany for the three-week tournament -- that's two-thirds the size of the staff that went to South Africa last year for the men’s World Cup. But it’s comparable, since the women’s tournament has only half the participating teams and fewer locations. And it’s much more ambitious than 2007, when announcers called all the games from a studio in Bristol.

This time around, a giant mobile studio rolls from site to site. Announcers call all the games on location (except for overlapping games, early in the tournament.) And the ESPN production crews help other organizations get interviews and clips, hoping to build demand for the game coverage.

The ratings are skyrocketing, compared to the women’s World Cup four years ago. Sunday afternoon, for example, 3.89 million viewers watched the U.S.-Brazil match. It was the largest American sporting audience all weekend, beating out ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball" by a full rating point. The average game in the women's Cup gets 804,000 viewers, so far.

The women's World Cup home page on ESPN.com has generated nearly 1.5 million views, and espnW set a record for traffic Monday, following the U.S. women's victory over Brazil. That same match is also setting records for replays on ESPN3.com.

ESPN executives hope for a similar audience in Wednesday's semifinal match between the U.S. and France, a game competing against mid-week work schedules.

Yet, the numbers are predictably much smaller than last year’s men’s event, when an average of 6.6 million people watched the U.S. group-stage games. But ESPN folks point out that comparing a men’s event to a women’s event is unfair.

So why invest the resources for a smaller audience? It’s got nothing to do with equality, according to Norby Williamson, ESPN executive vice president of studio and event production. It’s about potential new markets.

"I don’t make decisions to put things on the air for our health," he said. "I’m here to drive ratings and monetize and improve the brand."

The level of athleticism and competition in women’s soccer has improved enough recent years to merit ESPN’s full attention.

"Go back and look at a women’s World Cup of 1999," Williamson said. "Outside of the final (in which Brandi Chastain famously clinched the win with a penalty kick), the overall level of play today is much stronger."

Jed Drake, senior vice president and executive producer of World Cup coverage, is the man in charge of bringing specific shape to the event on ESPN. He did the same at last year’s men’s tournament in South Africa.

"We make sure we develop all the stories we can and we make the stories compelling," he said. "Ultimately this is a sporting event and viewers are left to decide. It’s important to recognize the distinction being producers rather than being advocates."

ESPN brought British commentator Ian Darke back after a successful run at the men’s World Cup. By now, you’ve heard him react dozens of times to Abby Wambach's game-tying goal in the 122nd minute against Brazil Sunday: "Can you believe this? Abby Wambach has just saved USA’s life in this World Cup.” Darke and analyst Julie Foudy make a good team.

Along the way, there have been a few bumps. Fans complain in the Poynter Review mailbag about Chastain, now an analyst for ESPN, habitually using the words "we" and "us" when describing the U.S. team. She should break that habit. Others complained the ESPN.com headline "Drama Queens" was sexist. We get that the headline writer was trying to turn the phrase on its head, as in "The U.S. women were the queens of a dramatic event."

The biggest gaffe may have been inserting the U.S.-Brazil game into a Top 10 Most Dramatic Sports Finishes highlight list on "SportsCenter." It’s a premature assertion to make without a little passage of time to offer perspective. And the fans took exception to it, pointing out dozens of other dramatic endings that were left off the list (such as Kerri Strug’s one-footed vault landing to secure a team gold in the 1996 Olympics.) All minor stuff.

By covering the women’s World Cup, ESPN is documenting a riveting international competition featuring the best players and best national teams the world has to offer. It’s great to see women getting the same level of coverage as men. Sure, there’s a long way to go before women athletes have the same opportunities. But getting the same coverage for the same reason -- because there’s money to be made -- is true progress.