In the U.S., no stupid horn is slowing the World Cup ratings. Through the first weekend of the tournament, covering eight matches, ESPN and ABC averaged some 4,247,000 viewers per match, up 80% versus the first eight matches of the 2006 World Cup. Saturday's United States-England game attracted about 17.1 million viewers between ABC and Univision, the Spanish-language network (this total includes 13 million viewers on ABC, and 4.1 million on Univision). The game was the most-watched opening round World Cup broadcast ever.
The combined viewership of USA-England beat the ratings of the first six games of the NBA finals, which averaged 16.4 million viewers, according to Nielsen Sports (though the crucial Game 5 alone drew 18.7 million viewers, according to Nielsen). USA-England trounced the Stanley Cup finals, which averaged 5.2 million viewers. It even compared favorably to the average viewership for an NFL regular season broadcast, 18.4 million though U.S.-England lagged the average viewership for an NFL playoff game, 36 million, by a very healthy margin.
Sure, these numbers are skewered by the epic nature of the U.S.-England rivalry. But television executives, and soccer aficionados, still have reason to be ecstatic. So what is causing the jump? First, you must give ESPN its due. The network poured more money into its World Cup marketing campaign, which features the ubiquitous ad with the voice of Bono trumpeting the unifying nature of the sport, than it had for any other single event in the network's history. "For the casual sports fan, ESPN is a gauge of what's important," says Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "And if you have arguably the number one sports brand telling you this is important, the numbers are going to trend in a higher direction." The network has also invested in its digital initiatives, and through the first three days of competition nearly 1.3 million viewers watched the World Cup on its streaming video platform, ESPN3.com.
Also, credit the American sports fans. "People know that when Greece has an economic problem, we feel it too," says Neal Pilson, the former head of CBS Sports and president of Pilson Communications, a consulting firm. "The public is aware that we are in a world wide marketplace, and a world wide sports market. Sports fans are more sophisticated than ever before." Face it: you come across as worldly if you show off your knowledge of the Brazilian attack at a cocktail party. There's a caché to watching the World Cup, whether are not your passions are real.
With emergence of the Fox Soccer Channel, and English Premier League games on ESPN, there's more soccer on television than ever, further bumping up awareness. Plus, social media has helped spread the soccer gospel faster, and further. Nike's posh "Write the Future" soccer ad, featuring stars like Christiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, and Homer Simpson, has been viewed an incredible 15.4 million times on YouTube. In the week leading up to the event, Nielsen reported that the World Cup topped its online "buzz" metric, beating out all the major sports.
American soccer must capitalize on this momentum. "The real question will be 'what happens to Major League Soccer ratings after the World Cup?'" says Steve Master, Nielsen's vice president of sports. Master and other analysts are forecasting an incremental, if not overwhelming, improvement for the American pro soccer league thanks to the World Cup. Master points to hockey as a possible trendsetter: it's no coincidence that in the same year that the USA-Canada Olympic gold medal hockey drew 27.6 million viewers for NBC, Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Philadelphia Flyers gave the NHL its highest rating in 36 years. Yes, two major market teams in the finals was a major driver of the high number. But a world event like the Olympics certainly helped.
Aggressive marketing by the teams will also aid MLS' efforts. Many teams are hosting World Cup viewing parties in order to attract interest for the sport. The Colorado Rapids, for example, "certified" about 50 businesses as "World Cup friendly," meaning they are places that will essentially let their employees watch games at work. The initiative was especially popular among Denver lawyers and dentists offices. The Rapids are promising to put these people on the stadium big-screen during post-World Cup games in July, which would bring them out the stadium, give the sales staff leads for a potential season ticket holders, and hopefully get them watching the sport.
Of course, the success of these grassroots moves could ultimately depend on how far the U.S. advances in the tournament. A do-or-die match in the round of 16 or quarterfinal would really keep the momentum strong. A quiet exit, especially after the U.S.-England theatrics, would be a major letdown. So what's the real key to America's soccer future? Beating Slovenia on Friday, for starters.