5 Ways to Keep Loving Soccer Even With the World Cup Gone

PORTLAND, Ore. (MainStreet) — The World Cup is over, but there's a lot more for soccer's newest converts to watch even after the world's teams left Brazil.

ESPN averaged 3.54 million viewers through the group stage 2014 World Cup in Brazil, up 46% from the 2010 World Cup and more than double the audience for the early rounds in 2006. Univision, meanwhile, averaged a network-best 2.9 million viewers for each of those same 48 matches. The U.S. men's national team averaged nearly 18.3 million viewers on ESPN and Univision combined for its three opening-round matches, with the 24.7 million audience for its match against Portugal making it the most-watched opening-round World Cup match in U.S. history. Even the U.S. loss to Belgium in the Round of 16 drew 16.5 million viewers to ESPN alone and 21.6 million to ESPN and Univision combined. Throw in ESPN and Univision's digital audiences, and that viewership soars to 28.2 million, which would be the largest viewership for soccer in U.S. television history.

ESPN, Univision and ABC have discovered their combined $425 million investment in the U.S. broadcast rights for the 2010 and 2014 World Cup paying dividends far beyond what the U.S. men's national team could produce. Until this year, the most-watched World Cup match in U.S. history was the 2010 World Cup final between Spain and The Netherlands on ABC and Univision. That combined television audience of 24.3 million was the largest in history for a U.S. soccer broadcast and overshadowed easily the 19.4 million who watched the Round of 16 matchup between the U.S. and Ghana that year — the most-watched U.S. national team match to that point.

This year's numbers have only solidified the U.S. interest in international soccer regardless of which teams take the pitch. A combined 9.5 million viewers watched host nation Brazil's opening match against Croatia on ESPN and Univision, falling just short of the 12.6 million viewers who tuned in to Game 4 of the NBA Finals later that night on ABC. ESPN's opening-match viewership was 49% greater than its audience for the 2010 World Cup and a bigger crowd than any World Cup opener in the past 20 years. Univision, meanwhile drew nearly triple the amount of viewers NBC did with the early rounds of golf's U.S. Open that same day.

Later in the tournament, a whopping 11 million U.S. viewers would tune in on a Tuesday to watch Mexico play Brazil to a draw. That's an audience not only considerably larger than the 5.8 million the National Hockey League averaged per game for its Stanley Cup finals, but equal to the number of viewers who watched the 2013 Major League Baseball All-Star Game on Fox. When Mexico made it to the Round of 16 and lost narrowly to The Netherlands, 17 million U.S. viewers tuned in. Again, for perspective, that's the same number of U.S. viewers that watched the World Cup final in 2006 and larger than the crowd of 16.5 million that watched the U.S. team's final group stage match against Germany.

It's no fluke, and U.S. broadcasters know it. The $425 million Fox paid for the English-language rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cup is equal to the value of the English- and Spanish-language World Cup broadcasts in 2010 and this year combined. Comcast-owned Telemundo had to pay $600 million just to wrest the Spanish-language rights for those same events away form Univision.

Why? Because the U.S. soccer audience is not only growing, but worldly. Major League Soccer's television ratings are on par with WNBA broadcast and TBS reruns, but NBC's broadcasts of English Premier League matchups on Saturday morning have managed 438,000 viewers per match this season. That's up from 220,000 on Fox and ESPN in 2012 and includes 1.2 million for a Cardiff-Swansea match, 1.1 million for a tilt between Swansea and Manchester United and 1 million for Man U-Crystal Palace matchup. In total, 4.9 million U.S. viewers tuned in for the last day of EPL matches and averaged 1.8 million per match, up from 869,000 last year.

Those big matches regularly outpace Fox's Saturday baseball game of the week, which is why NBC had no problem shelling out $250 million for just two seasons of EPL action. Fox struck back by securing rights to UEFA Champions League and CONCACAF Gold Cup matches through 2015, while ESPN invested in the European Chamionship and in Liga MX matches out of Mexico. Al-Jazeera's beIN, meanwhile, holds both the Spanish- and English-language rights to Spain's La Liga and put in a competing bid for the Premier League rights.

Also see: Don't Worry, Baseball, Soccer Hasn't Beaten You Yet

Why? Because the kids are watching. Children 17 and younger made up 4.6% of the 2013 World Series audience on Fox — which had an average age of roughly 54. NBC's 2013 coverage of English Premier League soccer drew 11% of its audience from that age group. That generation is a big reason why sales of Electronic Arts' FIFA Soccer video game series in North America have soared from 1.52 million copies in 2010 to 2.36 million last year. They're not only fans of the game, but get more regular exposure to global stars such as Lionel Messi, Neymar, Arjen Robben and Wayne Rooney through the game than they currently do through U.S. television outlets.

Within the next year, there are going to be a whole lot of chances for new U.S. soccer viewers to get more familiar with the game through their national team and elsewhere. Here are just five examples of what's on the slate:

Major League Soccer All-Star Game
MLS All-Stars vs. Bayern Munich
Aug. 6
Network: ESPN 2

The good news is that MLS attendance is holding steady at around 18,500 — ahead of the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League (fewer than 17,800 per game each) and even outdrawing MLB teams on average in some markets — and that 40% of MLS' TV viewership is age 34 or younger, according to Nielsen.

The bad news? That TV audience is nearly nonexistent. MLS playoffs averaged 320,000 viewers last season, with a playoff game between the Portland Timbers and Real Salt Lake drawing fewer eyeballs than a rerun of Everybody Loves Raymond. Regular-season MLS matches averaged 220,000 viewers on ESPN and about half that on NBC Sports Network. By comparison, the WNBA drew about 230,000 viewers for each of its games.

Still, each year it manages to do an excellent job with its All-Star Game by bringing in a European powerhouse to take on the league's best players. This year, it's U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann's old crew Bayern Munich from Germany's Bundesliga. Not only one of the best teams in the world, Bayern Munich is also a who's-who of World Cup talent. U.S. forward Julian Green, the 19-year-old who scored the last goal of the tournament, is on this roster. Netherlands striker Arjen Robben is a starter, as is French star Franck Ribery.

Much of the rest of the roster is a mishmash of German national team starters who were invaluable to their team's run to the title match. Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, defender Jerome Boateng, striker Thomas Mueller and captains Phillipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger should all be familiar faces to those who caught their matchup with the U.S. team, their late-round matchups with France and Brazil and the Cup final.

The MLS All-Stars are going to have their hands full, but that's a group of names worth watching. Just about the only thing the match doesn't have going for it is timing. Because it's being played in Portland, Ore., it starts at 9:30 p.m. on the East Coast. That isn't great news for a league that saw its stars draw just 319,000 to ESPN2 when they played AS Roma during their league's All-Star game last year. Even that was down 530,000 from their All-Star matchup against Chelsea in 2012.

UEFA Champions League
Sept. 16, 2014, to June 6, 2015
Network: Fox, Fox Sports 1, Fox Soccer Channel, FX

For large swaths of the soccer-watching world, this event is a bigger deal than the World Cup.

Europe's best club teams all face of against each other for continental — to be honest, global — bragging rights and the most prized trophy in all of club soccer. It's the biggest event professional soccer has to offer and, justifiably, it's become a big deal here. Let's put it this way: Spain La Liga club Atletico Madrid's 3-1 elimination of English Premier League giants Chelsea in April attracted 627,000 viewers to FOX Sports 1. The ensuing 4-0 thrashing of last year's champions Bayern Munic by Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid picked up 557,000 viewers.

Either match makes the MLS All-Star Game look puny by comparison, but the 3.1 million who tuned in to Fox and Fox Deportes in May to watch Real Madrid win the whole thing was World Cup big. The only bigger Champions League draw during Fox's five-year stint as host was the 4.2 million who watched Barcelona and Manchester United in 2011.

Also see: 5 World Cup Matches We Watched Even in the U.S.

As NBC and ESPN are discovering with their EPL and Liga MX deals — and Fox will soon realize when it picks up coverage of Germany's Bundesliga next year — the U.S. has absolutely no problem watching club soccer as long as it isn't played here. Major League Soccer matches draw fewer viewers than the WNBA and its playoffs are overshadowed by sitcom reruns, but club soccer and the Champions League have no problem outdrawing baseball in this country. The Champions League is soccer at its highest level, and we're guessing a lot more people will be tuning in this year.

FA Cup
Aug. 16, 2014, to May 30, 2015
Network: Fox

Also known as the FA Challenge Cup, this is one of the greatest things soccer ever does. It's basically Hoosiers on the pitch, with low-level clubs such as Chasetown ideally getting the opportunity to play against top flight English Premier League teams including Manchester United and Liverpool.

Seldom does that happen, but it does represent a great chance for underdogs or teams who are having an otherwise dreadful season to find some redemption. Last year, Arsenal finished well out of the running for the English Premier League championship but still managed to finish fourth with 24 wins and qualify for the UEFA Champions League playoff round. Hull City, meanwhile, finished the year just four points away from relegation and with 21 losses to its credit.

Arsenal and Hull City made it to the FA Cup title match, which Hull City managed to keep to a 2-2 draw in regulation time before Arsenal scored early in overtime. A year earlier, Wigan managed to become the first team to win the FA Cup and be relegated to the second-tier Football Championship in the same year after beating reigning English Premier League champion Manchester City for the title.

It's nearly impossible to watch all of the FA Cup matches here in the states, but U.S. viewers are really getting a taste for the finals. Fox drew an average of 880,000 viewers this year for Arsenal and Hull City, with the audience peaking at 1 million viewers at one point. That's a 13% improvement over the past year and proof that U.S. audiences will take Premier League matches just about any way they can get them.

CONCACAF Gold Cup
July 7-26, 2015
Network: Fox

The World Cup clearly has U.S. viewers' attention at this point, but the CONCACAF Gold Cup is starting to draw that same level of interest.

Every two years, the national teams from North America, Central America and the Caribbean get together and face off to see who is the best in the region. Last year, the U.S. not only won the whole thing with a 1-0 victory over Panama, but it drew 7.3 million viewers in the process. For perspective, that's more than the 5.8 million viewers the National Hockey League managed for its entire Stanley Cup Finals this year.

Next year's matchup is the one worth watching, though. Landon Donovan, who was the 2013 Gold Cup MVP and has a Gold Cup-record 18 goals to his credit, likely won't be playing. But if the U.S. wins this tournament it will qualify automatically for the Confederations Cup in Russia in 2016 and face the best national teams from all over the world. That's kind of a big deal, since the U.S. beat future World Cup champion Spain in the semifinal and almost toppled Brazil in the final when it last made the Confederations Cup back in 2009.

If the U.S. doesn't win, it's going to have to play the winner of this year's tournament in a one-game playoff to decide who gets the ticket to Russia. Regardless of that outcome, people will be watching. When the U.S. lost to Mexico in the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup final, a record 8.9 million people tuned in on Fox Sports and Univision. When the U.S. was shut out by Mexico 5-0 in the 2009 final, 5.9 million U.S. viewers tuned in.

Even if the U.S. doesn't play Mexico, it usually ends up hosting this tournament and drawing a lot of eyeballs anyway. If Mexico is involved, just keep in mind that U.S.-Mexico matches drew 9.7 million viewers for a World Cup qualifier last year and 7.2 million for a friendly earlier this year. The Gold Cup just gives them a little extra to play for.

Women's World Cup
June 6 to July 5, 2015
Network: Fox, Telemundo

The U.S. team's 1999 Women's World Cup final win over China is still one of the most-watched soccer matches in U.S. history. The 18 million viewers who watched Brandi Chastain make the clinching penalty kick was a bigger audience than the men's team managed for its match against Germany in this year's World Cup group stage.

The real momentum is still coming out of 2011, though, when 3.9 million viewers saw U.S. captain Abby Wambach head in a crossing pass from Megan Rapinoe to beat Brazil in overtime and keep their tournament hopes alive. When it came down to penalty kicks against Japan in the final, 13.5 million U.S. viewers watched the Japanese women win one for their tsunami-ravaged country.

Well the U.S. team hasn't whittled down the numbers yet, but Wambach and Rapinoe should be back, along with star striker Alex Morgan, midfield mainstays Carli Lloyd and Heather O'Reilly and captain Christine Rampone. The big question at this point is who'll be minding the net. That task typically falls to Hope Solo, but a recent arrest makes it possible Nicole Barnhart may get the nod instead.

This is one World Cup where the U.S. team is routinely among the favorites, but that doesn't make playing powerhouses such as Brazil, Germany or Japan any less difficult. The greatest advantage the U.S. has may be location: This year's cup is being played in Canada, which not only makes it easier for fans to show up, but a lot simpler for them to tune in.

By Jason Notte

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