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Foot Dragging

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.



There's still no assurance that World Cup telecasts in English
will be available in the U.S.