The 2006 World Cup Final was among the most-watched sporting events in history, as an estimated 715 million viewers tuned in to see Italy knock off France, 5-3, in a penalty kick shootout.

The 2010 Cup Final, set for early July, has a great chance to draw even more viewers—and ESPN, which owns the broadcast rights to this year’s tournament, seems intent on learning as much as possible about the viewing habits of each and every one of them.

ESPN last month announced the creation of ESPN XP, a new multi-partner research initiative through which the network will study consumer behavior tied to some of the biggest events in sports—the 2010 World Cup being the first. To study television viewership of the tournament, ESPN has contracted with Nielsen Co., and to look at branding issues, it has brought in marketing research firm the Keller Fay Group. But when it comes to Internet and mobile technologies, The Worldwide Leader in Sports turned to a Wharton research center that may well be termed The Worldwide Leader in Interactive Media.

As one of the major components of ESPN XP, ESPN will turn all data gathered about its mobile and Internet viewers during the first round of the World Cup over to the Wharton Interactive Media Initiative, which will move quickly to analyze that data and then report back to the network with a prediction of how (and how many of) those same viewers figure to consume the later rounds of the tournament.

“This is obviously crucial information for them,” says WIMI co-director Eric Bradlow, Wharton’s K.P. Chao Professor. “This is how they make money—by selling to advertisers.”

Peter Fader, Wharton’s Frances and Pei-Yuan Chia Professor and Bradlow’s fellow co-director, notes that while other large media companies have launched similar initiatives in the past, the ESPN-WIMI partnership is unique in that its goals are proactive. Rather than gathering data about a past sporting event, Fader says, WIMI will prepare forecasts for a future event. The unique structure of the World Cup—which takes about a month to complete—helps make that aim possible.

“NBC has looked back at the Olympics, trying to figure out how many people watched on television or via mobile or on cable,” Fader says. “But NBC was looking backward there, saying ‘Here’s who watched the Olympics on our various platforms.’ We wondered, ‘Wouldn’t it be better to say that before [the event] happens, so you could plan accordingly and inform your advertisers about it?’ We told ESPN, ‘Let’s do this proactively.’”

Coverage of the World Cup on ESPN begins on June 11, and the Cup final is set for July 11. But the conclusion of the tournament isn’t likely to be the end of ESPN XP. Already, ESPN has hinted that it will expand the initiative to include its coverage of both professional and college football.

Bradlow and Fader, for their part, hope the ESPN partnership—and the results of their World Cup work—will show other media companies how they stand to benefit from WIMI’s methods as well.

“At the end of the day, we believe this would be a success if we can predict the last three weeks of the tournament based on the first two weeks,” Bradlow explains. “If we can do that, we’ll [be able] to go around to other businesses and media companies and tell them, ‘We did this for the World Cup, and this is what we can do for your site.’ It would be proof of concept that academic forecasting algorithms have practical value and can help answer real business questions.”