Mouse plan limits streaming access

When the World Cup begins Friday, Disney won’t be shy about flogging the tournament to auds around the world, from serving up promos at Disneyland Paris to creating Cup-related marketing messages around “Cars.”

In the U.S., 52 of the 64 games will be shown live on ABC or an ESPN net.

But there’s a big hole in ABC/Disney’s coverage of the world’s largest sports tourney — Web streaming.

Though nearly all the matches will be broadcast on television live during the American workday, many of them won’t be available to the typical American worker.

That’s because game streams will be accessible only via ESPN360, the sports net’s ambitious but obscure broadband channel that’s available mainly to Verizon and Adelphia high-speed subscribers and locked up exclusive broadband rights. No 360? No luck.

Only about 8 million Americans have access to ESPN360. And it’s certainly not the venue of choice for the ethnic American audience that comprises a significant chunk of World Cup viewership.

By contrast, CBS drew about 1.5 million viewers to its live Web streams of March Madness (and earned plenty of ad coin) when it offered all of its games live on CBSSportsline.com this year.

Tanya VanCourt, VP and general manager for ESPN New Media Video Products, said, “When we have longform exclusive content, we reserve those events for ESPN360, so when we thought about the World Cup games we thought this platform made the most sense.”

A spokesman added, “We want to grow ESPN360, and we’ve always held the opinion that some good content requires some investment.”

For the net, the gamble is clear: Use the popularity of the matches to pressure other providers to take 360 — even if it means most consumers will get nada in the way of streaming on the far more accessible ESPN.com.

ESPN360 will offer a free trial later in the tournament that will see 10 games offered to all users, though some of those games will take place on the weekend, when there’s far less Web demand.

(ESPN also won’t offer any video highlights of games on any of its Web sites; those rights were sold separately by soccer org Fifa to Yahoo!)

All this comes as some improbable candidates jump on the Cup video bandwagon. Even the New York Times is running match tracking with live blog commentaries and video diaries, with journo Roger Cohen and others offering their take.

“The central characteristic of this media environment is that people have a lot of choices,” said deputy managing editor Jonathan Landman in explaining his paper’s push. “You can’t just think the games are on TV so that’s the only way people are going to get information about them.”

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