Every four years U.S. soccer fans have been reasonably confident that they'd be able to see the World Cup on live, English-language broadcasts. Until now, that is. Though the U.S. team has had a surprising run in the qualifying tournament (below, midfielder Chris Armas, right, fended off Jamaica's forward Wolde Harris in their 0-0 tie on June 16) and is a virtual lock to advance, there is still no assurance that English-language coverage will be available next June when the Cup begins in Japan and South Korea.
To understand why, one has to follow a twisted trail. Initially, FIFA, soccer's international governing body, planned to use a Swiss-based company called ISL/ISMM to sell television rights to the World Cup, but in March ISL/ISMM filed for bankruptcy. Forced to scramble, FIFA in May sold U.S. and European television rights to German media company Kirch, which announced that it expected to nail down a deal with a U.S. network by June. Then Kirch exercised an option to buy the remainder of ISL/ISMM's world rights. Amid the turmoil, little progress was made on U.S. negotiations. "They've been delayed for a long time, and, obviously, that has hurt everybody," says Bob Yalen, director of brand management at ESPN, which in conjunction with sister network ABC is the front-runner to purchase the rights. (ABC broadcast the 1994 and '98 Cups.)
A complicating factor is the time difference—most World Cup games will begin in the dead of night here, in the infomercial graveyard of 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. That means a network has to hope people will buy a six-pack of Jolt and tune in during the wee hours. If it tape-delays the action, it risks sending hard-core fans to Univision, the Spanish-language channel that will show all 64 games live.
Barring a collapse by the U.S. team in qualifying—in which case networks would probably back off and fans would have to choose between Univision and pay-per-view—or an unanticipated roadblock by Kirch, expect ABC/ ESPN to buy the rights and show all games live. "With Univision doing it [live], we'd have to go live [too]," says Yalen. It's unlikely a deal will be sealed until September. Until then, U.S. fans can only wait, hope and, just in case, practice their Spanish.