NEW YORK (AP) — ESPN executives gushed about the World Cup on Friday with no hint they are a lame-duck broadcaster when it comes to the tournament.
The tournament in Brazil, which opens June 12, is the sixth straight World Cup that ESPN will televise in the U.S. — and the last for at least a dozen years. Fox won the rights to the 2018 and 2022 tournaments.
In the meantime, ESPN still is committed to soccer, said its president, John Skipper.
"We have to be there," he said.
That's vital with the way the sport's popularity is growing with American viewers. The average rating for World Cup games on ESPN networks increased 31 percent between the 2006 and 2010 tournaments.
The numbers for international matches have kept going up ever since, and Skipper is particularly mindful of surveys that show the high interest in soccer among younger viewers.
ESPN has the 2016 European Championship in France, and it's "on the precipice" of a new deal with Major League Soccer, Skipper said. ESPN and Fox share U.S. rights to European qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup.
But the big targets on the horizon are the English Premier League and Spain's La Liga. NBC is finishing the first season of a three-year deal with the Premier League, so the next round of negotiations will come around again soon.
ESPN has invited Fox executives to observe its production in Brazil for "a proper handoff," Skipper said.
ESPN is dedicating its vast resources to covering the tournament, with 290 hours of original programming planned — up from 250 four years ago. That's an easy decision even with its shortage of soccer content after the World Cup. And not just because of the way the audience has been swelling.