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Soccer to fancy football viewers?

What the Americans call "soccer!" and the rest of the world knows and fanatically supports as "football." is facing its biggest test during the World Cup next summer when, for the first time, it is being staged in the U.S.

Everything about the event, which runs from June 17 to July 17, 1994. is big and much of it promises to be record-breaking. What can not be measured is the degree to which the televised games will establish soccer as a popular sport in America where, to date, it hasn't significantly taken off.

American youngsters play soccer in school, but seem to abandon it for baseball and basketball when they reach their teens. Abroad, football is a lifelong passion and football stars can surpass the popularity of Hollywood personalities.

The 1994 World Cup television rights have been snapped up by ABC and ESPN in the U.S., with ABC to carry 11 games and ESPN 41 contests. The networks have paid $11 million for the rights.

Alan Rothenberg, chief executive officer of World Cup USA, has established that the Cup will generate some $4 billion in direct and ancillary income.

While Coca Cola, MasterCard and MGM/Mars will sponsor the TV coverage, they have agreed that the commercial messages should not interrupt the flow of the games. There will be on-screen graphics that still allow a viewer to, follow the action.

World Cup USA, which is staging the soccer event for FIFA, the international soccer association, estimates a cumulative international TV audience of 31.2 billion. Anywhere between 190 and 195 countries will carry the games, utilizing some 16,500 compounded hours. By comparison, the 1990 Cup was seen by a cumulative audience of around 27 billion people in the 167 countries that televised the competition. The final game alone was seen by over one billion viewers, more than double the number who watched the first moon landing.

The European feed of the World Cup from the nine U.S. venues is handled by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). Apart from daily live coverage, there will be a "highlights" show and, following the final game, a 90-minute Cup special. The technical end is being handled by the International Broadcast Center headquartered in Dallas. The TV signal around the world, will be relayed by eight satellites.

Ethnic groups are the most ardent football fans in the U.S., which explains in part why the Cup kicks off at Soldiers Field in Chicago, with the final championship game in Pasadena, California.

Probably the largest single ethnic group supporting soccer in the U.S. are Hispanics. Univision will televise all the matches in Spanish. When there is an overlap, Univision will carry one match live and the second the same day on a tape-delay basis.

In a run-up competition to the World Cup earlier this year, the U.S. team. which isn't given much of a chance in the broad competition, managed to beat mighty England sensationally (2-0) but was in turn beaten by the Germans (2-1).

In Europe, as on all other continents, the cost of sports on TV has skyrocketed. In Germany, for instance. earlier this year, the Kirch/Springer-owned sports rights agency, ISPR, paid $437 million for a five-year deal with the national football league. The rights were acquired by SAT-I, also owned by Kirch/Springer, but viewer response was (surprisingly) disappointing. SAT-I paid '$75 million for the rights, winning over public broadcaster ARD which, in 1988, paid only $11 million for them.

It's a similar story in Britain where the English league got $45 million per season for its games in 1988. Recently BSkyB shelled out $51.5 million for 60 live game transmissions. In Italy. the RAI football budget went up from $45 million to $90 million and, in the latest development, Italian football is heading for pay-TV.

In a recent development, the European Commission voted to allow the EBU to continue to bid for the exclusive rights to soccer matches, thus virtually assuring that public television networks in various countries would continue to have access. However, EBU will also assure commercial broadcasters access to important matches.

In the U.S., there is as yet no formal soccer league. Hand Steinbrecher is the secretary general of the U.S. Soccer Federation. The hope is that, once World Cup '94 has run its course, soccer will have overcome its purely ethnic appeal and become of interest to sports fans generally.
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Title Annotation:the World Cup will be staged in the U.S. next year
Publication:Video Age International
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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