Though only a friendly, the network is sending an army to Miami to cover the International Champions Cup match

ESPN opened some eyes a few weeks back when it announced its coverage plan for Saturday’s International Champions Cup match in Miami between Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Though the game is just a friendly, ESPN is covering the so-called “Miami Clasico” as if it were the World Cup final and Super Bowl all rolled into one. The network sent 25 on-air personalities to Miami, has been broadcasting live on location all week, and will air two “SportsCenter on the Road” episodes from Miami on Friday and Saturday.

It’s the most comprehensive coverage ESPN has ever featured for a single soccer match.

“It’s a unique event. It features one of the biggest rivalries in sports. It’s got two of the biggest clubs and two of the biggest brands, several of the largest stars. We felt like a big event like that warrants that type of coverage,” Scott Gugliemino, ESPN’s senior vice president for programming and production, told Goal.

Bet on the Miami Clasico

Reactions online to ESPN’s planned coverage of the game spanned from excitement over placing such a high priority on a soccer game, to exasperation at the over-hyping of a glorified scrimmage that features thousand-dollar tickets.

So why is ESPN putting so much time, effort and financial resources into the Miami Clasico?

First the obvious: The game offers up soccer’s greatest club rivalry, features some of the sport’s biggest stars including possibly the greatest player of all time, and the two teams are meeting outside of Spain for only the second time ever – and the first time since a 1982 friendly in Venezuela.

ESPN hopes it will be also able to use the individual rivalry between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi as a major selling point, but Ronaldo’s participation in the match is very much in doubt.

Cristiano Ronaldo Lionel Messi Barcelona Real Madrid Clasico

“It would be ideal to have Cristiano play,” Gugliemino said. “If he doesn’t, we go in eyes wide open on these events. There are times when star players don’t play in matches in their domestic leagues so it’s just part of sports.”

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Part of why ESPN devoted so many resources to the Miami Clasico is the match comes during something of a lull in the network’s programming and the American sports landscape as a whole.

The NFL and college football are barely into preseason training camps, while the NBA and college basketball are in full offseason mode. Major League Baseball is the only big-time ESPN property in full swing.

“It’s a time of year where we can devote resources and air time,” Gugliemino said. “In terms of late July, it’s one where we can set aside the resources and set aside the time on the networks to really amplify the event.”

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Perhaps the biggest factor in ESPN’s extensive coverage of the game, though, is the fact the network owns both the English and Spanish rights to the match – and will place a heavy emphasis on the latter.

Most major soccer events sell their English and Spanish media rights in separate packages to fully cash in on their value (for example, Fox has English rights and Telemundo has Spanish rights in the U.S. for the next two World Cups).

Lionel Messi Neymar Barcelona Manchester United ICC

The ICC, however, sold their English and Spanish rights together. ESPN purchased the bilingual package with a rare opportunity to own a major U.S. soccer event in both languages.

“Barcelona and Real Madrid are among the top two teams among Hispanics, who represent an important segment of our overall audience,” Gugliemino said. “Hispanic sports fans are very excited about this event and we are proud to present this level of unprecedented coverage in Spanish and English.”

The majority of the 25 on-air personalities ESPN sent to Miami are Spanish-speaking, with ESPN Deportes featuring even more on-air programing than its English-speaking sibling channels. 

To reach a broader audience in Spanish, ESPN will simulcast the Spanish broadcast of the match on both ESPN Deportes and ESPN2, with the English broadcast set for ESPN.

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Clearly having rights in both languages helps explain ESPN’s investment, but is the network at all concerned at the perception that it’s placing too much importance on a game that doesn’t count?

“We believe that the way we’re set up going into the week is more than appropriate,” Gugliemino said.

“You characterized the game as not counting,” Gugliemino said. “I would actually go the other way and say this is a pretty critical time in the season.

“This is an important time for these teams, both technically and commercially. The access that we gained while we’re here in the States and with some of the teams in Asia, that is helping us serve sports fans with these major teams and major players in what we believe is actually a fairly important part of the year as they prepare for their domestic seasons.”

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