ESPN buildup feeding 2014 World Cup frenzy

With staffers flooding Brazil, all 64 matches will be shown live on ESPN, ESPN2 or ABC and ESPN platforms will be filled with analysis

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Progress can be measured by the offside rule when it comes to soccer in the United States.

In 1994, when ESPN aired the first World Cup in the United States, play-by-play man Ian Darke was required to give viewers a lesson in what constituted offside in soccer. Imagine Joe Buck explaining that a double play counts as two outs during a World Series.

"I understood at that time," Darke said. "But I think the sophistication of the American audience has grown, and I would almost regard it as an insult, really, to their intelligence now to be asked to explain the basics of the game."

Twenty years later, the anticipation and awareness for the World Cup is at an all-time high in the U.S. ESPN is going all out with unprecedented coverage beginning with the opening match Thursday. All 64 matches will be shown live on either ESPN, ESPN2 or ABC, along with nearly 24/7 analysis on all of its platforms.

The network's invasion of Brazil will consist of hundreds of ESPN staffers scattered throughout the country to cover every aspect of the Cup. It will be as close to NBC's armada for the Olympics as it gets for a major sporting event.

The World Cup always has been huge everywhere but here. Now after all these years, the U.S. is starting to catch on.

The reason is twofold: Soccer continues to gain popularity in the states. Darke cited the growing participation numbers that not only expose kids to the game, but also their parents.

"They understand the rhythms of it, and everybody has the general idea now that the World Cup is a very, very big deal," Darke said.

The other factor, though, clearly is ESPN. The network's blanket coverage of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa sucked in many non-traditional soccer viewers. ESPN then fired up its massive blowtorch with a relentless marketing campaign to promote this year's World Cup.

In short: Don't underestimate the power of ESPN.

"What we did in 2010 is rather remarkable in that you could make the argument the United States was really the last holdout, if you will, for somewhat of a level of indifference in the World Cup," Jed Drake, ESPN's executive producer for the World Cup. "We fundamentally changed that in 2010. We did so through a production and marketing approach that made people understand how important this event is to the rest of the planet."

In fact, ESPN helped make it so big, Fox Sports landed the rights to the 2018 and '22 World Cups with an estimated $1 billion bid. ESPN, though, still has a heavy stake in soccer and wants to make the most of its last World Cup for a while.

The ratings likely will soar if the U.S. team makes a decent showing. But even it doesn't, Drake believes the spectacle of the World Cup, coupled with the passion for soccer in Brazil, will lure viewers in record numbers.

"This event does transcend soccer," Drake said. "This is a global event that people even in the United States will tune in to because of the sheer scope and magnitude of it."

Last call: Speaking of final broadcasts, this week's U.S. Open will mark the end of long runs for NBC (20 years) and ESPN (33 years). Fox begins a 12-year deal to air the Open in 2015.

It figures to be an emotional week for Johnny Miller. His 1973 U.S. Open victory was his defining moment as a player. He since has cherished being NBC's lead analyst on the tournament since 1995.

On more than one occasion, Miller has gotten choked up and even moved to tears while discussing the Open on the air. So his final sign-off with Dan Hicks could be a three-tissue experience.

"I don't know," Miller says. "I never know when I'm going to get that way or not. This tournament is the epitome of what I wanted to do as an announcer. As long as nobody asks me, 'Is this going to tear your heart out because it's your last U.S. Open?' I'm probably going to be fine."

Hicks isn't so sure.

"It's almost unfathomable to me to think what his emotions will be like, knowing it's his last time," he says. "It'll be pretty powerful."

Eddie O: It may not happen this year, but Mike Emrick wouldn't be surprised if his NBC partner Eddie Olczyk eventually leaves the booth to take a position with a team. Olczyk, who was fired as Penguins coach in 2005, continues to say he has "unfinished business" in the game.

"He offers so much in the telecasts in terms of teaching the game," Emrick said. "He still has a lot of coach left in him."

Then noting one of Olczyk's edicts, Emrick said, "I know if I ever wind up playing hockey in another life, I always will keep my stick down."

Farewell: Rick Reilly wrote his good-bye column for ESPN.com Tuesday. At 56, the long-time columnist still will contribute to the network's coverage of "Monday Night Football." However, during the rest of the year, he will live in Italy.

"I always dreamed of retiring early," Reilly said. "I never wanted to be one of these old sportswriters that was still hacking out columns at 90 and then died over their Olivettis. I know there's actual life out there beyond groin pulls."

Ed Sherman writes about sports media at shermanreport.com. Follow him @Sherman_Report

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