ESPN turn back the clock for 12-hour coverage
Cup final breakfast, the players leaving their hotels – the Disney-owned station will revive a grand tradition
"Their name is on it," is a phrase often used at this time of year by football fans predicting the winner of the world's greatest domestic club knock-out competition, the FA Cup.
"Wonga" – rather than Manchester City or Stoke City – is not the name you would expect to be on the lips of every fan, but the money-lending website will have its brand stamped all over tomorrow's final thanks to a sponsorship deal with ESPN that aims to restore the showcase as one of the television events of the year.
The sponsor and broadcaster have hatched a deal that will mean ESPN can show the game commercial-free, from kick-off through to the lifting of the trophy, a key point of difference from ITV, the other network with rights to the match. It will also underpin a 12-hour day of coverage on ESPN in an attempt to emulate the long build-up that the Cup final was afforded in a less frenetic media era.
It will be Disney-owned ESPN's first Cup final broadcast in Britain and, like a breathless young fan, it will be at Wembley from 8am. After the demise of Setanta, ESPN looks ready to make a better fist of challenging BSkyB as the dominant broadcaster in British sport.
Although it only had one pack of 23 Premier League games this season (compared to Sky's five) it plans to bid for a greater share at the next auction in 2012. Ross Hair, the Briton newly-appointed to head its operations in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, has ambitions to get a foothold in cricket and does not rule out ESPN bringing its Sports Centre news channel to the UK as a competitor to Sky Sports News.
Hair will be at Wembley tomorrow as will the ESPN anchor Ray Stubbs and a punditry team that includes former Manchester City managers Kevin Keegan and Joe Royle alongside Robbie Savage, who was this week given a Sony award for his broadcasting on Radio 5 Live. "We feel it will be a much more immersive environment than ITV," said Hair. "We do look at things differently to other broadcasters and content providers. We look to do things from the fan's perspective."
He reminisced about Cup final broadcasting of old, when the players were shown being fitted for their suits and then exchanging banter on the coach trip from the team hotel. "When I was a kid I used to love that game around the game when you got to know some of the personalities and some of the characters that had put the event together as well as the expectancy of a great game of football," he said. "I think that's something we are looking to recapture."
The Superbowl, when 30 second advertising slots were being sold for $3 million apiece, showed the ability of televised sport to draw a mass audience (111m viewers watched the game on Fox TV). But ESPN has chosen to give ITV a free run and forego commercial revenue in the hope of showing its commitment.
Unlike Setanta, ESPN can draw on its vast experience as a sports broadcaster in America, where networks enjoy considerable access to players. At the Cup final it will have a pitch-side desk and access to the dressing rooms before and after the game.
Hair said the romance of the FA Cup makes it a unique sporting event. The broadcaster has been lucky in the games it has picked in earlier rounds, choosing the giant-killing performances of FC United (conquerors of Rochdale) and Stevenage Borough (who beat Newcastle). It also showed Orient's heroics in holding Arsenal.
In the close season ESPN will be showing the Copa America tournament from South America and the Arsenal-hosted Emirates Cup. Its football offering extends to the Italian, German, Dutch and Russian leagues and it shows Premier League goals via a £1.79 application, shortly after the final whistle. "You can get all the goals on your mobile phone five hours before Match of the Day," said Hair.
He joined ESPN from Sony Pictures but formerly worked for the company as director of strategic planning in Asia, where he saw "how powerful cricket is as a sport". ESPN already owns the cricket website Cricinfo, which is hugely popular in the Indian subcontinent and was generating 6m users a day during the recent World Cup, and Hair is anxious that the network secures some coverage. It also owns the rugby site ESPN Scrum and will culminate a season of televising the Aviva Premiership final on 28 May.
Hair described ESPN's relationship with Sky as "complex". The Disney broadcaster will be providing 3D coverage of the FA Cup final which will be hosted on Sky's 3D channel. For the Cup final, that's a first.
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