ESPN isn't broadcasting the men's World Cup for the first time since 1990, and that is enough of a change to how the network covers the tournament.
The change is much deeper than not being able to televise live games from Russia. The network can't show game footage on any of its studio shows or on its website, and SportsCenter is limited to two minutes of highlights per show — and only from 6 pm. to midnight Eastern.
The restriction — which only applies to this tournament, because ESPN negotiates with FIFA rights-holder Fox on an event-by-event basis — is forcing ESPN to get creative when it comes to covering the World Cup. You might have seen by now how ESPN's restrictions manifest themselves.
Lead analyst Taylor Twellman has done tactical analysis videos with Legos, and after-midnight SportsCenter host Scott Van Pelt has asked viewers to send in their kids' drawings of the action.
The current rights deal is different than it was for the 2015 Women's World Cup, but for as popular as that event was in the United States, a men's World Cup draws more eyeballs. And in terms of viewership, it was never a secret that Fox had a big bar to reach because ESPN set it very high. So while it may be disappointing to some that Fox wouldn't agree to a broader deal and allow more usage of game footage, it isn't entirely surprising.
In some ways, it's news that ESPN is giving such prominence to an event it doesn't have rights for. The network could leave it to the side, especially amid the frenzy of NBA free agency — a league for which does have rights. But that hasn't happened.
"I think there was a commitment to do it, especially on SportsCenter, but I think it's only growing," said Steve Palese, the coordinating producer of the daily ESPN FC studio show. "People are, I think, naturally gravitating toward it, and I think it will get bigger and bigger as it goes."
ESPN FC has been airing since the summer of 2013. It moved from linear television to ESPN's subscription streaming platform, ESPN+, in mid-April, but has been back on TV during the World Cup.
Given the show's limitations, how do you convince viewers to switch over from Fox? Palese doesn't hide from the elephant in the room.
"We're on so close to the end of the games that we operate as if people have seen the games, because that's really the only way to do it," he said. "There's no real good way to re-create [highlights] without the video, so you just hope that people care enough about what your guys have to say that you're just doing a reaction-type show."
The panelists are familiar names by now, starting with Ian Darke and Steve McManaman. Darke joins the show via satellite from Kazan, where he's calling games for the world feed broadcast that goes to networks that don't send announcers. McManaman is in Bristol.
ESPN FC host Dan Thomas has been at this long enough to not be tempted to say "Let's go to the highlights" when he knows he can't. But the difference certainly affects him.
"Of course it does," he said. "People who are going to watch our show are people who enjoy the game, will have somehow watched the match, and then they go to us for the extended analysis. … You come to us for the conversation, for the discussion."
Thomas is very active on social media, and tries to leverage that to get followers to change the channel once games end.
"It's a big part of where we are and how we sell it," he said, "You have to make people aware of how they can find us. But the good thing is we've got a real loyal following."
Media outlets spin audience data in any number of ways, from unique visitors to engagement time to TV and streaming viewership. How can one judge whether ESPN's presentation has been successful? Here's one way to ask it: has the audience exceeded the network's own expectations, especially with the U.S. not playing?
"From what I've seen of the metrics, especially digitally, it's been above what I thought it would be," Palese said. "It's done really well."
Take that as a sign of just how big the World Cup is in this country, no matter who's broadcasting it.