Disney-owned TV networks ABC and ESPN have won the television rights to this year’s soccer World Cup in Japan and Korea as part of an unusual agreement with America’s professional men’s competition Major League Soccer.

The odd part of the deal is that the broadcasters are not paying anything to televise one of the most widely watched sporting events in the world. In fact, the American TV rights have been bought from German company Kirch Gruppe (which in turn purchased them from soccer’s global governing body FIFA) by a number of investors in Major League Soccer, including Japanese ad giant Dentsu.

For their money – reportedly around $40 million – the MLS group has acquired rights to this year’s men’s World Cup and the following tournament in Germany in 2006, plus the 2003 women’s World Cup in China.

Between them, ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 will televise all 64 matches from the men’s events and eleven from the women’s, plus around 30 MLS games a season until 2006, ensuring the American league keeps prominent TV exposure in spite of its failure to gain ratings – last season attracted only about 200,000 households per match.

In addition, the networks will be given as yet unknown revenue guarantees, MLS having founded an unnamed unit to sell ads and sponsorship and produce programmes.

Rights to show the matches from this year’s tournament on Spanish-language television have already been handed to Univision Communications.

News source: Wall Street Journal