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Questions and answers for US media coverage of World Cup

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NEW YORK, N.Y. - The World Cup kicks off Thursday in Sao Paulo with home team Brazil going up against Croatia in the opener of the world's most popular sporting event.

All 64 soccer matches will air in English in the United States on ESPN, ESPN2 or ABC. Univision and its associated networks — UniMas, Galavision and Univision Deportes — will broadcast the games in Spanish.

Here are some media questions and answers heading into the World Cup.

WILL THE WORLD CUP BE PROFITABLE FOR ESPN?

Almost certainly. ESPN earned the rights to televise the 2010 and 2014 World Cup for $100 million back in 2005, and the popularity of soccer on TV has increased exponentially since then. Ratings will surely be up from 2010. Advertising on ESPN is close to being sold out, at higher prices than in the past. ESPN also has platforms to monetize its coverage — smartphone and tablet apps — that didn't exist in 2005. "By all means it should be profitable," said Rick Burton, professor of sports management at Syracuse University, even more so if the U.S. team does well. "I really do believe the media pundits are going to be surprised at how big the World Cup is going to be in the United States." Another profit point is subtle: ESPN might be tempted to find cost savings because the network lost the bid for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Fox.

WHO WILL TURN INTO TV COMBATANTS?

A lot depends on the games themselves, of course, but look for former U.S. World Cup player Alexi Lalas and retired German star Michael Ballack to go at it a few times on ESPN, particularly with the U.S. and German teams in the same group. The network has adjusted its schedule to encourage spirited debate among its analysts. Four years ago in South Africa, ESPN found that some of the best soccer discussions happened in the hotel bar after the cameras turned off. This year producers will try to capture some of that passion, with a regular "World Cup Tonight" discussion on an informal set.

IS SOCIAL MEDIA READY FOR THE WORLD CUP?

The biggest companies see the potential. Facebook has a special World Cup section to help keep fans involved with their teams. Soccer's governing authority has its own Instagram account. And don't be surprised if the World Cup sets Twitter usage standards that exceed the 2012 Olympics in London. All but one of the participating teams have Twitter accounts, with Iran the only exception (although Twitter says some of its players have accounts). More than three-quarters of Twitter accounts are now outside the United States, making it a natural discussion platform for the world's most popular game. Twitter has blogged a helpful guide with dozens of Twitter accounts for fans to follow.

WILL THE GOOOOOOAAAAAAALLLLL GUY BE THERE?

Not on television. Andres Cantor, the Spanish-language announcer renowned for his hold-your-breath "goooooaaal" calls, will be broadcasting World Cup games for his own radio network. If you turn down the sound on TV and play Cantor's radio call, you won't be alone. Pablo Ramirez is the go-to guy for Univision's television coverage in the U.S. His scoring calls can be equally long-winded but distinctive: "gooaalll-azo azo azo!"

WHAT WILL TV FANS BE WEARING?

We have a good guess. More than half the people who follow soccer told the Harris Poll that they thought it was important to wear merchandise honouring their favourite team or player while watching the World Cup (that's from a poll of 2,286 U.S. adults conducted for the Nielsen company last month).

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David Bauder can be reached at dbauder@ap.org or on Twitter @dbauder. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/david-bauder.

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