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Monumental sports year will connect fans on a global scale

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Get ready for the biggest global sports year in history.

With the Super Bowl, Winter Olympics and FIFA World Cup taking place months apart and key changes in place for how fans watch and interact, 2010 could raise the bar for the total consumption of sports worldwide.

"We call it the trifecta, with three massive media events," said Stephen Master, vice president of Nielsen Sports, which analyzes how fans take in sporting events.

The Super Bowl is routinely the most watched program of the year in the United States, and viewership is expected to be high again for Super Bowl XLIV because the NFL has seen growing television ratings in the past year. Five days after the Feb. 7 game, the Winter Olympics begin in Vancouver, kicking off a month of programming, most of which will air live on NBC and its cable partners. The World Cup, the most popular sporting event outside of the United States, starts June 11 in South Africa.

It's typical for the World Cup and Winter Olympics to be held in the same year, and it last happened in 2006. But even then, the ability of fans to discuss the events online was more limited, as social media sites such as Facebook were in their infancy and Twitter had not been invented. Meanwhile, Olympics broadcaster NBC Universal was only starting to air events online and had not launched its Universal Sports cable network, and soccer programming was still relatively limited in the United States.

"It's actually changed quite a bit," Master said of the amount of soccer televised here. "When the last World Cup happened, things like English Premier League and Champions League weren't available, but now all those games are on television."

In the past two years alone, ESPN has bolstered its soccer coverage by airing live matches from the UEFA Euro 2008 Championships, and it began televising English Premier League matches this year. Meanwhile, ratings for several U.S. men's national team matches, including the Confederations Cup game against Brazil, were among the highest rated soccer games ever in the U.S.

The cable network agreed to pay FIFA $100 million for broadcast rights to the 2010 and 2014 World Cups and the 2007 and 2011 Women's World Cup. In 2006, ESPN televised the World Cup under an agreement with Soccer United Marketing, which paid for all rights fees and production.

"From a corporate perspective, this is the first World Cup where we are directly invested as a partner with FIFA," said Scott Guglielmino, vice president of programming and acquisitions for ESPN. "For us, the World Cup is so unique in the way it crystallizes fandom on a national level like nothing else."

ESPN plans to roll out World Cup-related content on platforms that didn't exist four years ago, including the ESPN360 broadband service and Mobile TV application.

In the past few years, new cable networks and online technologies have allowed U.S. soccer fans to watch the top leagues in Europe, and even obscure matches in Asia and Africa are accessible through unofficial online video streams. Advancements in blogging and social media make talking about the sport easier than ever, especially for fans who don't live where the games are played.

"I can write about world soccer from here in Atlanta. I would not have been able to do that in the past, because I wouldn't have had the base of information to draw from," said John Turnbull, editor of The Global Game, a Web site devoted to soccer news and culture. "Following sports is so much more than watching your team; it's about talking about it as well. You can create your own little universe. ... I know the Atlanta Braves play about three miles from my house, but I don't know who plays for them. But I know everything you could want to know about soccer anywhere in the world."

Master said the growth of social media sites could make it easier for athletes at the Olympics and World Cup to interact with fans, and they might be wise to do so - buzz from these events often passes quickly once they are over.

"The interesting thing will be to see whether athletes who literally just won a gold medal in speedskating go to their phone and post a tweet," he said. "With the Olympics, there is generally a pretty short window to build your brand, so they're going to want to gain as much notoriety as possible. These athletes, if they win a gold medal, are going to want to leverage that and build their fan base."

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