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World Cup Ratings Spike: How Popular Is Soccer In The U.S.?

Fans gather in Chicago's Grant Park to watch the U.S. play Portugal Sunday — a game that set a new ratings record for soccer on ESPN.
Scott Olson Getty Images
Fans gather in Chicago's Grant Park to watch the U.S. play Portugal Sunday — a game that set a new ratings record for soccer on ESPN.

World Cup Ratings Spike: How Popular Is Soccer In The U.S.?
World Cup Ratings Spike: How Popular Is Soccer In The U.S.? GUESTSJay Paris, Sports Writer Beau Lynott, Contributor, Voice of San Diego

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition, I am Maureen Cavanaugh. It is everywhere you turn, men in colorful shirts running quickly around a large stadium, following a small white ball. For people who are not fans of international soccer, the World Cup finals feel like they have been going on for ever. The eyes of the world are on the gains in Brazil, that the eyes of most Americans still glaze over. How can the most popular game in the world, a game played by so many American youngsters still be such a nonstarter among American sports fans? Joining me to discuss why so many are dedicated to the sporting event and why so many others are waiting impatiently for to and are my guests, Beau Lynott of Voice of San Diego. Welcome back to the show. BEAU LYNOTT: Thanks for having me, Maureen. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Also joining us is sportswriter Jay Paris. Hi, Jay. JAY PARIS: Bonjour, how are we doing? MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Pretty well. Beau, what are some of the theories of why Americans don't follow soccer? BEAU LYNOTT: Probably my best theory is that we had our own sports, as a new country. There was the apocryphal opinion that baseball was invented in the United States, and obviously we did sort of invent American football and basketball was popular. We felt like we had our own sports and did not necessarily want to copy the British. Soccer is their sport. It is American exceptionalism exhibited on the sporting field, perhaps. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Jay, low scores tie games, does that have something to do with it? JAY PARIS: I think so to a degree, let's look at an American football game. If the score was 21 to 14, you say look at all of those point being scored, but you are awarding seven points for the touchdown. If a three to two soccer game is equivalent to a 21 to 14 football game, maybe they ought to juice up the point total. With soccer becoming more popular there is more appreciation of the game and the end-all is not being the ball getting internet, what is going on in the other parts of the game is starting to become more appreciated. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Are you a soccer fan? JAY PARIS: I am a soccer fan, but I admit I have not cheered for a soccer goal as loud since this weekend when my niece played AYSO. I don't call the kickball tournament though, as some of my friends do that aren't into soccer, but I am getting hooked on it as well. It is just the appreciation of the athletes and the trauma, you can feel the passion oozing from the stands. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Beau, I will ask you to give us a little background on the World Cup finals. How do they compare to the World Series or the Super Bowl? BEAU LYNOTT: The obvious answer is that it is international, it is the biggest sport in the entire world and in most countries. It is also held every four years on an alternate two years from the Summer Olympics, so it really occupies its own unique place. Unlike the Olympics where you have a wide range of sports, you have countries were competing against each other. This is truly each country competing against each other on the biggest stage in the world. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: One thing I do not get since I do not follow international soccer, in England and Spain and all of the countries involved have a lot of different soccer teams. How did they come up with a national team? Is is like an All-Star team? BEAU LYNOTT: It is essentially an All-Star team. You do not have to be a natural born citizen, to meet the presidential standard. If you are eligible for a passport you are eligible to play for the national team. Once you have been capped, where you have played one game for your nation's national team, you are permanently tied to that team. It is really important. For instance, there are five players in the US national team of German heritage one way or another, but they have to stay with the US team once they have been convinced and once they have played a single minute on the field for the US or any other team. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Why does it go on for so long? JAY PARIS: There are twenty-eight teams, they spread it out, and if you wait for years, what is the hurry? They want to try to milk it as long as they can't, and that is the drama that builds with each match and getting to the next match, seeing if your team can stay alive. It will get through teams quite quickly, and that is when mistakes come up. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What about the simple question who is winning? Can a non-soccer fan keep up with the finals with an answer to that in any way? BEAU LYNOTT: It is a little trickier when we are in the group stage, there are actually thirty-two teams all grouped into groups of four. The top two groups in any group move on to the round of sixteen, so after tomorrow there'll only be sixteen teams remaining. During the group stage you can have a draw or a tie, for instance the US could tie Germany tomorrow and move on to the elimination round. Once the knockout round starts on Saturday, it is much easier to follow you when you move forward, you lose you go home. It is much more cut and dry. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: There are many, many people in San Diego. I do not want to give the impression that nobody cares, but there are many people in San Diego who love soccer, grew up rooting for the country's team if they are from somewhere else, and the ratings for their World Cup here in San Diego are pretty good. Are there pockets of intense interest across the US for the World Cup finals? JAY PARIS: Absolutely, and with us being a border city, the influence of Mexico and their love of the game is also felt. Seattle has a huge stadium where the football team plays, the Seahawks. They sell out all of the time. The Seattle Sounders in the MLS league are a major league here in soccer. I was in San Jose last weekend and they were building a huge stadium by San Jose airport. We have the women's soccer league that was here, that was quite popular. You have to remember, a lot of people are turning the nose up, but 26 million Americans watched that soccer game the other day. That is more than NBA finals, more than the highest rated Monday night football game last year. It is coming, and we've been hearing for a long time that soccer is the next big thing. Everybody has been waiting, but it seems like the snowball seems to be picking up a little more motivation and rolling down the hill quite quickly. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have been hearing that for years, we have a couple of generations who grew up playing soccer, but it still seems as if interest in soccer kind of dies off when people grow up and they become affiliated with football teams or baseball teams, or basketball. Do you see that changing? JAY PARIS: I do, I coach Little League baseball a lot from the youth level. I remember the old joke used to be, why do so many kids play soccer? So they do not have to watch it. That is not true anymore, the love for this game is starting to grow. Football, baseball, basketball, it is still working out that letter. Look at how far it has come in the last ten years, and the number of people watching it. I was done at the gaslamp the other day after the Padres game, and everybody bar or restaurant had that game on full blast and people with yelling out the windows. Something special is happening here, with the underdogs, if they can beat Germany and head on to the next round, I think this thing just grows. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Beau, some international critics have said that the game is not of interest, international football is not of interest to a wide variety of Americans because there is not enough violence in it, do you think there is anything to that? BEAU LYNOTT: Yesterday there was an incident with the player in Argentina that bit an opponent. [ LAUGHTER ] BEAU LYNOTT: I think if it gets more popular, if Americans need contact, they will see that it's an extremely physical sport. Clint Dempsey, in an opening game against Ghana had his nose broken badly with the shin to his face. No penalty was given for it other than just a foul, so it is an extremely physical sport, it certainly does not have the violence of American football hockey, but as Americans, as people get more acquainted with it and realize just how taxing it is physically. Also, the clock never stops. There are stoppages in play, but a full ninety minute soccer match is as physically grueling as any professional sport that we have. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What have you heard? What happens in other countries in the World Cup finals when perhaps it is a big match or their country's team is playing? I've heard that things come to a halt. BEAU LYNOTT: Life stops, particularly in Africa, South and Central America, Mexico, the US and Ghana were each other's first game. Ghana contracted with a neighboring country for electricity, to make sure that their grid held up while everyone was watching the match late at night. The Mexican national team was playing Croatia a few weeks ago. The alleged head of the Ariano Felix Tijuana Cartel was arrested at his home during the match and he was photographed wearing a Mexican national team jersey with the tria colores face paint, so they knew where he would be. They knew he would be occupied sitting in front of the TV during the Mexican national match. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: They World Cup finals as a crime-fighting tool. What about FIFA, the international Federation that runs soccer. Jay, I hear it has ongoing corruption problems. Is that unsavory aspect something that Americans are put off by? JAY PARIS: Maybe, but there is a way to bribe your way to the top some way. The Olympic Federation, they have their problems as well. I don't know if that turns people off as much, and now there is always some spirit of competition when these world cups are awarded to various countries. Just like it goes the Olympics. I think if they do not like soccer it is not because someone gave a thousand dollar handshake. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It could be that Americans don't necessarily like to be judged by international judges, they do not appreciate as much in the Olympics, and maybe that is an impediment across the board to interest in this international competition, what do you think? BEAU LYNOTT: It does not help. FIFA is conducting its own investigation into what happened with the awarding of the 2022 World Cup. It is not like our hands are completely clean. We are more accustomed to running our own leaks, so an international body is something that we are sort of put off by. With the investigations and everything that is coming up, it seems that there will be a reckoning. It may not be squeaky clean anytime soon, but as more is brought to light things will probably improve on that end. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I only have time for one more question, but I will ask you, for someone who does not know much about soccer, who does not understand the game very well, when it is on TV and your watch it with other people, what should you look for? JAY PARIS: Look at how crisp the passes are. It is very rare that a higher gets a ball all the way out in the open and pages and scores by himself. It is usually set up by somebody. The guy kicking the goal, he gets the headline and the spotlight. Really what happens are two or three passes leading up to that. While others are saying nothing is going on, you'll sound like an expert, if you say they are setting up the pass for the goal. Look a little bit past just the goal score, and see how the ball got there. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much, I will remember that. JAY PARIS: You got it. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for speaking with us. BEAU LYNOTT: Thank you, that was fun. JAY PARIS: Okay, Cheers.

Sunday's thrilling and frustrating World Cup match between U.S. and Portugal drew an average of 24.7 million viewers, according to the Nielsen ratings company, a result that puts the game above the recent NBA finals.

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The game's total U.S. viewership of 24.7 million includes ratings from both ESPN (18.2 million viewers) and the Spanish-language Univision (6.5 million); it doesn't include the 1.37 million people ESPN says streamed the game online.

The ratings also don't take into account the thousands who watched the U.S-Portugal game, which ended in a dramatic 2-2 draw, at large outdoor viewing parties.

The New York Times puts the TV numbers in perspective, in an article with the not-unprovocative headline, Bigger Than Baseball:

"While not near the totals scored by the N.F.L. playoffs or, certainly, the Super Bowl, the American audience for the World Cup game on Sunday easily eclipsed the N.B.A. finals this year, which averaged 15.5 million viewers, as well as the 2013 World Series, which averaged 14.9 million viewers. The N.H.L. playoffs are not even remotely as popular as the World Cup, having averaged only five million viewers this season."

The strong ratings were greeted as affirmation by soccer fans in the U.S., with some folks seeing proof that the game's future is golden here. The TV numbers back up recent reports that outside of host Brazil, far more World Cup tickets were bought by Americans than any other nationality.

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So, where are the soccer fans in the U.S.? While the Washington, D.C., market has led the way in English-language broadcasts, the Cup also highlights the power of Univision, which hold the Spanish-language rights in the U.S.

Consider that in Miami, the U.S.-Portugal game drew a 9.4 rating on ESPN – and a 10.7 rating on Univision. That combines for a combined rating of 20.1 – surpassing Washington's combined mark of 17.2 (13.3 on ESPN and 3.9 on Univision). Univision says that its ratings for this World Cup have already beaten the totals from 2010.

Others are taking the ratings with a grain of salt, noting that the homegrown Major League Soccer's games have struggled to command viewers' attention.

We'll also note that while the World Cup draws fans who love the sport, some viewers' interests are driven by nationalist passions. There's also the high level of play. And then there's the timing: of the major U.S. sports, only baseball is now in season. That leaves plenty of room for the Cup in many sports fans' lives.

As CBS notes, Sunday's match set a new mark on ESPN:

"Through 32 matches, World Cup games averaged 4.3 million viewers on ESPN. That's up 50 percent from the nearly 2.9 million for matches in the 2010 World Cup. Sunday's match was the most-watched event ever on ESPN that did not involve American football."

The strong ratings benefited from a favorable viewing time: 6 p.m. ET on a Sunday. In more ways than one, the next U.S. game should pose more of a challenge: It starts at noon on Thursday, and it's against Germany. It will also decide whether the U.S. team advances to the tournament's round of 16.

As Eyder explained in a Two-Way post yesterday, there are several scenarios that could play out to determine who advances from group play, depending on the outcomes of the U.S.-Germany match and the simultaneous one between Portugal and Ghana.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/

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