ESPN's ex-top exec describes how soccer's World Cup was lost

1 month ago Fremont Tribune

NEW YORK — A former ESPN executive underscored how big money corrupted soccer, testifying in U.S. District Court on Tuesday that his company's bid to televise the World Cup might have been sabotaged by two former Fox executives accused of bribing officials to undermine competing offers.

ESPN's former president, John Skipper, told a federal court in New York that ESPN and Univision had jointly bid $900 million — evenly split between the two TV behemoths — for broadcasting rights to the two most recent World Cups, including the recently completed one in Qatar.

Despite ESPN's hefty bid for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments, FIFA awarded U.S. English-language rights to Fox, which bid less.

Government lawyers say millions of dollars in bribes fed a system of clandestine, no-bid contracts that allowed corrupt soccer executives to profit from the scheme and ultimately allowed Fox to air the matches.

Prosecutors allege the payoffs enabled the former Fox executives — Heran Lopez and Carlos Martinez — to get confidential information from high-ranking soccer officials, including those at FIFA. The information helped Fox secure the U.S. English-language rights with a $425 million bid. Telemundo, a division of NBCUniversal's Comcast Corp., won U.S. Spanish-language rights for about $600 million.

"I was disappointed," Skipper said. "In fact, I was angry."

Skipper said he had assumed the highest bidder would prevail, but the process turned increasingly complicated when ESPN's offer was turned down and soccer officials opened a second round of bidding.

Under questioning from a defense attorney, Skipper acknowledged that he did not know if anything illegal was going on behind the scenes.

New York-based Fox Corp., which split from a subsidiary of international channels during a restructuring in 2019, has denied any involvement in the bribery scandal and is not a defendant in the case.

The company said in a statement that it has cooperated fully.

The trial is the latest development in a tangled corruption scandal that dates back nearly a decade and has ensnared more than three dozen media and soccer executives as well as associates.

Skipper's testimony was meant to corroborate statements by the government's star witness, Alejandro Burzaco, who testified over 11 days that he and the former Fox executives conspired to bribe South American soccer officials for TV rights to the Southern Hemisphere's biggest annual tournament, the Copa Libertadores, and help land broadcasting rights to the World Cup, the sport's most lucrative competition.

Lawyers for Lopez and Martinez have asserted that the former executives are being framed, with one defense lawyer accusing Burzaco of masterminding the bribes.

Burzaco is a former business partner of Lopez and Martinez, and headed an Argentinian marketing firm. He has cooperated in previous soccer corruption investigations since being arrested in 2015 in a bribery case. Critics contend he's cooperating to avoid prison.

Burzaco has pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy and other charges. He testified in 2017 that all three South Americans on the FIFA executive council took million-dollar bribes to support Qatar's bid to host the 2022 World Cup.

Skipper said ESPN initially bid $250 million in 2011 for U.S. English-language rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. The company upped that to $450 million in a second round. Coupled with Univision's proposed contribution, the total came to $900 million.

"We wanted to blow the bid away," he said.

ESPN had long held U.S. broadcasting rights for the World Cup, first airing soccer's premier sporting event before it caught on with American audiences — when FIFA had to buy air time to get the tournament broadcast in the United States.

As the sport's audience grew, so did the World Cup's financial cachet.

ESPN paid $100 million for the rights to broadcast the sporting event in 2010 and 2014.

The dramatic hike spoke to the sporting event's increasing importance, Skipper said.

December's World Cup final in Qatar, where Argentina prevailed over France in a dramatic title-clinching shootout, was the most-watched soccer match in the United States, according to television audience estimates.

As a courtesy for helping FIFA develop a rise in soccer viewership, Skipper had hoped soccer officials would allow ESPN to match or beat competitors' proposals but was not approached to do so.

So far, more than two dozen people have pleaded guilty and two people have been convicted at trial in connection with a U.S.-led investigation into tens of millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks at soccer's highest levels. Four corporate entities have also pleaded guilty. Four other companies were charged but reached agreements with the government to avoid prosecution.

Soccer governing body, FIFA, has said it was not involved in any fraud or conspiracies and was a mere bystander as the scandal unfolded.

Nevertheless, the scandal thrust the organization under worldwide scrutiny. It has since sought to polish its tarnished image.

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