I wanted to save the best story from my recent trip to ESPN for last. So here it is.
In addition to watching a taping of "ESPN FC on TV," I was able to spend some time talking with some of the higher-ups at the company about their view of soccer rights.
First up was ESPN president John Skipper, who met a group of reporters for lunch in a swanky conference room. For being one of the most powerful people in sports, he's a pretty open book. The North Carolina native has a down-to-earth demeanor and a classic Tar Heel drawl.
When my turn to question Skipper came, I asked how he sees ESPN's future with soccer. The company does not have any U.S. rights to the Premier League or UEFA Champions League, and loses the biggest contract of all - rights to FIFA tournaments - after next year's World Cup in Brazil.
I then asked Skipper how he sees ESPN's future with Major League Soccer and the U.S. Soccer Federation. Those rights are jointly packaged in a deal which ends after the 2014 MLS season.
Here's what he said:
We're committed to soccer, [and] we're going to have to have a Plan B. The perfect plan in soccer is to own the World Cup, to own the domestic league, to have significant rights from leagues around the world.
But we're going to have to adapt to there being a significant culture [of rights beyond ESPN's reach] and Fox winning the World Cup.
We're excited about doing the World Cup in '14 - I think we're going to set a new high bar for how soccer is presented. And it's in Brazil, so it's in this time zone. It's going to be a high water mark, I believe.
We continue to be interested in European soccer. We have the European Championship rights in '16, and we will certainly be trying to retain those rights in future years. That's a quadrennial event as well. We bought Mexican national team rights.
We're going to look and see where we can be opportunistic. There's a lot of soccer content. We have MLS through '14. It would be our preference to retain a relationship with MLS. So there's a lot of soccer to go around, but there's a lot of competition, and we've seen the results of that.
We've enjoyed a long relationship with the U.S. men's national team, the women's national team and MLS, and our clear preference would be to continue that relationship.
The words "clear preference" are pretty strong language. It's easy to see why: combine the dramatic increase in ratings for U.S. men's national team games with the longstanding ratings power of the U.S. women's national team at the World Cup and other events.
MLS ratings are a different story, as we know. But whether from Skipper or lots of other people at ESPN who I've talked to, there's a definite commitment to staying with the league and helping raise its profile.
With that in mind, I turned to Brian Kweder, ESPN's senior director of programming and acquisitions. He is the brains behind the network's soccer rights deals. So you probably want to know his name.
You probably also want to know that Kweder is a Philly-area native. He attended Perkiomen Valley High School.
He is not, alas, related to local cult musician Kenn Kweder - at least as far as he knows. Nor was I able to find out how much time Brian has spent in one of Kweder's favorite haunts, Smokey Joe's in University City. But Brian is aware of Kenn, and told me he's been asked many times if there's a connection. So I settled for that.
Here's a transcript of our conversation.
It took a while for ESPN to marshal the resources to commit to a daily soccer show. What was the tipping point at which the network was finally ready?
For us it was really the advent of the ESPNFC website. We felt like we needed a linear extension on television for that. Soccer in this country is at an all-time high from a popularity standpoint, and it just seemed like the right time to do it.
Soccer as a whole, as you mentioned, is at an all-time high in popularity in the United States. Coincidentally - or perhaps not - the popularity of the U.S. men's national team is also at an all-time high.
In terms of TV ratings, for as much as everyone likes to talk about the Premier League and other competitions, the World Cup and the U.S. national teams really drive the bus. Is it a coincidence that the daily show and the rest of ESPN's increased investment in televising soccer come at a time like this?
The fact that we have the World Cup in 2014, and it's in the spiritual home of soccer that is Brazil, we know that the World Cup is going to drive an audience like we've never seen before.
ESPN FC will definitely benefit from that, up to and including U.S. national team world Cup qualifying, and the team being decided, and the draw, and beyond. So I'd say yeah, they do coincide.
Are there any plans to take the daily show on the road to sites of games?
We will have the show on site at U.S. vs. Mexico in Columbus, for example. At key events, you'll definitely see an ESPN FC presence on site.
After next summer, you lose the FIFA contract. The joint MLS/U.S. Soccer contract is up after the 2014 season. So you could be at a bit of a crossroads. Where will ESPN go in general from there with soccer?
We're going to concentrate on ESPN FC and our news and information coverage around the world of soccer. We're also working with the U.S. national team and MLS to renew that agreement. And we're taking a look at some other properties out there.
Soccer is very cyclical. It has a very short lifespan for these contracts, so whereas in other sports you see 10- or 12- or 15- or sometimes even 20-year deals, in soccer it's generally no more than two or three years. So you can always get back in to places where you might have gotten out of before.
Along those lines, I have to ask about something that ESPN gets accused of at times in other sports. Does the quantity or tone of soccer coverage change if you're dealing with a league that ESPN does not have the rights to?
It absolutely won't be the case with soccer. We continue to believe that soccer offers us a diverse audience. It's an up-and-coming sport, and there's no reason for us - whether we have the rights to certain leagues or not - to not cover those leagues through ESPN FC.
With regards to MLS and U.S. Soccer specifically, those rights have been bundled together in the past and I've heard that will continue to be the case with the next round of negotiations, which start later this year. What's ESPN's position on wanting to keep going with MLS and U.S. Soccer?
We're a longtime partner of Major League Soccer. We continue to believe in the sport and the business prospects of being with them, so we will try to renew that agreement. We believe that it's very important from a soccer standpoint for there to be a strong domestic league in the U.S.
So based on that belief, we will try to continue to try to negotiate with MLS for the next contract.
MLS fans can at times be, to put it one way, picky eaters. They are a little sensitive in terms of how they want the league to grow. There has been a lot of talk lately about how the league can raise its TV ratings, and I wonder if there are things that ESPN might like to change in the next deal to help.
I think Major League Soccer has already taken steps to increase television ratings with some of the signings it has made. You look at Clint Dempsey, just recently. Also, expanding to different cities, adding the second New York team - Major League Soccer is singularly focused on increasing ratings.
We haven't seen the results yet, but we are confident that the ratings will come in the future.
Some people have talked about more exclusive windows for broadcasts, which is something you've benefitted from as the league's primary rights-holder. But one thing that no MLS broadcaster has gotten yet is flexible scheduling to get bad matchups out of national TV slots. Is that something ESPN would like?
I don't envy the challenge that Major League Soccer has with the soccer calendar the way it is, between FIFA dates and CONCACAF dates and the U.S. Open Cup and stadium availability and team availability. Flexible scheduling in the soccer world is very difficult.
While it would be great for us to be able to decide what the schedule is on a more short-term basis, it's not really realistic for this sport.
You mentioned earlier that ESPN is looking at some other soccer properties to potentially acquire. Can you say anything about what those might be?
No, I can't talk about that.