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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.

--C.B.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO

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