For the ESPN empire and Univision, any questions about the return on their investment in the World Cup are being answered by viewers. On Saturday, the United States’ loss to Ghana was seen by 14.9 million on ABC — an American record for the tournament — and an additional 4.5 million on Univision.
That’s 19.4 million viewers for a Round of 16 game on a Saturday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. Eastern — the same number that Fox averaged over six prime-time games for last year’s World Series.
“That’s phenomenal,” said Stephen Master, the vice president for sports at the Nielsen Company. “If the U.S. had kept going, to the quarters and semifinal, you would have gotten really big numbers.”
Then, on Sunday, Argentina’s win over Mexico was seen by 9.4 million Univision viewers, a record for any program on Spanish-language television in the United States. An additional 5.5 million watched on ABC.
Also on Sunday, 7.9 million watched Germany beat England on ESPN and Univision.
Executives of both companies said that the tournament’s performance had exceeded their expectations — a considerable claim given ESPN’s assertion that its World Cup marketing campaign was the biggest one it had ever mounted for a single event (and that includes some of its self-congratulatory anniversaries).
“This is a good, sound financial proposition for us,” said John Skipper, ESPN’s executive vice president for content. “We have the 2014 rights in Brazil, at a favorable time that gives us a favorable financial opportunity.” Rio de Janeiro’s time zone is one hour later than New York’s, pushing games to prime time and ad rates higher.
Through 52 games, ESPN’s average viewership is up 58 percent to 2.86 million; Univision’s is 2.1 million, up nearly 9 percent. Figure, then, that about five million are watching the games, comparable to the N.B.A. playoffs, excluding the finals, and the Stanley Cup finals. And, as Master said, the games have all been shown in daytime in the United States.
“If you consider that, the World Cup numbers are fantastic,” Master said.
ESPN executives say there are various signposts of the South African World Cup’s success: a 28 percent increase from 2006 in ratings for games not including the United States team; a 38 percent jump in the rating for men 18 to 49; and a 29 percent increase in ratings in Hispanic households, which does not seem to have hurt Univision.
He added that ESPN’s investment in the World Cup was “an investment in the future.”
Enoch said, “There is a growing interest in soccer, and there’s certainly growth in the Hispanic population.” How much of the post-World Cup afterglow will be reflected in Major League Soccer attendance and viewership remains to be seen.
ESPN’s devotion to the World Cup may be serving as its audition for the Olympics. ESPN and NBC are the leading bidders for the rights to the 2014 and 2016 Winter and Summer Games, which will probably be auctioned next year. Skipper has vowed to carry everything live from the Olympics if ESPN wins, regardless of the time.
“I’m told median age for the World Cup viewers is 37, and the Olympics 52,” said Brad Adgate, the senior vice president for research at Horizon Media, an advertising agency, indicating that the network that could reach younger viewers had an advantage. “The Olympics are a remnant of the cold war, and the World Cup is part of the country’s ethnic diversity, the way this country is gradually moving.”
MLS ratings on ESPN still appear to be pretty awful, from Sports Media Watch:
Sunday's Sounders/Union MLS telecast drew a 0.2 U.S. rating and 331,000 viewers on ESPN2, down 5% in viewership from Dynamo/Galaxy in a later timeslot on the comparable date last year (350,000). To put that in perspective, the network averaged 193,000 viewers for its first seven MLS telecasts of the season (through May 7)
So the huge spectacle of the World Cup may be capturing American's attention, but our little professional league is not yet. It is not too surprising, the MLS may be the top league in the US and Canada, but it is still probably about a third-tier league worldwide and Americans aren't used to that. Until the big money from TV comes in the league will not have big payrolls and thus few big imported stars. So the future growth of the league will probably remain the same organic process - slowly improve the American player through involvement in player development and professionalism. This will still take a few generations, but it is pretty remarkable we have come in less than 15 years. I think soccer as a big time professional sport in the US is inevitable, but still a long way off.