The ratings for the United States World Cup draw with Portugal were announced Monday with record-setting numbers. ESPN boasted that 18.2 million people watched the game Sunday—huge for anything on television, but astronomically so for soccer, even at an event as big as the World Cup.
ESPN's business reporter Darren Rovell noted that the rating for ESPN was higher than the average rating for a regular-season NFL game last season. Sports Media Watch added that the 18.2 million viewers were more than any game of the NBA Finals this year, including the series clincher, which traditionally gets a ratings boost for any sport. (People love trophies.)
The ESPN numbers are flat-out huge, and it speaks to the big-event nature of American sports fans.
The thing is…those numbers aren't the entire audience.
Don't listen to people who say that 18.2 million people watched the U.S. and Portugal play one of the most exciting matches of this year's World Cup. They're wrong.
It was more. Way more.
Inside the U.S. World Cup Ratings
We have a tendency in this country to discount things we find unfamiliar, and while most of us are familiar with the English language—and therefore gravitate toward English-language channels on our television dial—there are a host of less familiar networks that provide programming in other languages.
In America, Spanish-language television stations are huge, especially for sports, often getting better ratings for soccer than American stations do. (The Mexico games in this World Cup, for example, are doing well on ESPN but are crushing on Univision.)
USA-Portugal TV: ESPN had 18.22 million viewers; Univision had 6.5 million. That combined 24.7 million number is huge.— John Ourand (@Ourand_SBJ) June 23, 2014
So let's take the 18.2 million viewers on ESPN and add in the reported 6.5 million who watched on Univision. Suddenly we're in BCS territory, as SportsBusiness Daily's Austin Karp reported that the 24.7 million viewers who watched U.S.-Portugal was just short of the rating for the BCS National Championship Game this year.
And that's just on television. That number does not include more than 1.5 million people who watched the match online through ESPN's and Univision's online streams, or all the city-sanctioned watch parties that had tens of thousands of people viewing the match on giant screens together, putting the total number of viewers well north of 26 million people. (Update: The original projections below were a bit higher, around 28 million, as it's difficult to calculate online streaming metrics in the same context as television ratings.)
It's incredible to think that so many people watched a World Cup soccer game in America. Seeing how the United States has played this year, and considering the overall interest in the game at a local, grassroots level, excitement and interest is sure to grow.
For a little more perspective—and a little context to the "nobody likes soccer" perpetuators who still exist in America—the number of people who watched Sunday's game in the United States is more than twice the entire population of Portugal.
The number of people in America who watched that draw on Sunday is actually more than the entire populations of half the countries participating in the 2014 World Cup (via CIA World Factbook).
The United States may not yet be a soccer nation, but the number of people who sat down to watch soccer in America on Sunday is bigger than the population for 75 percent of the countries in the entire world. (If I could italicize that line for effect any more, I would. I would.)
There is no way to read the television numbers in America for the World Cup—even the non-U.S. matches are doing five and six million viewers for some bigger teams in the group stage—and come up with any way to perpetuate the "nobody cares about soccer" trope that haters of the sport have been spewing for decades.
That's over. People care about soccer in America. Some of them may only care for one month every four years, but they care. And they care a lot.
(Faulty) Domestic Comparisons
You may have seen other writers talk about the ratings and tell readers that it's not prudent to compare a one-off soccer game to traditional American sporting events like the NBA Finals, BCS title game or World Series. The more apt rating, others have suggested, is the Olympics, which brings people together to watch niche sports because of little more than national pride.
"There isn't yet much evidence that rapt TV audiences from the World Cup will keep watching soccer between quadrennial worldwide championships. Soccer isn't becoming America's new baseball," wrote Derek Thompson for The Atlantic's site. "The World Cup is becoming America's new Summer Olympics."
Those people are right. And they're also super wrong.
People are wrong to say we cannot to compare World Cup ratings to other traditional American sports because they think we will use those ratings to project overall interest in American soccer moving forward.
Will the World Cup ratings provide a boost to MLS ratings this summer or EPL ratings in the fall? The American television networks surely hope so, but nobody is suggesting that 27 million people are going to start watching MLS, or that even a third of that number will tune in on the first Saturday slate in August when the Premier League returns.
To put the World Cup ratings in perspective, if 1 percent of Sunday's viewers like soccer enough to start watching MLS, ratings for America's domestic league would essentially double.
The World Cup is a big event, and the ratings for that event should be looked at as such. It certainly is fair to compare single-game ratings to other big events in America.
More people watch the NBA Finals than any other NBA game throughout the year. More people watch March Madness than the conference tournaments or regular season in college basketball tenfold.
Even in the NFL, which is the undisputed king of television in America by a wide margin, more and more people flock to games in the playoffs than during the regular season.
The average NFL game had just over 17 million viewers this year. The Super Bowl had 111.5 million.
We are a big-event nation. The World Cup is no different.
Not only is it completely fair to compare the World Cup to the BCS title game, the NBA Finals or the World Series, it would be silly not to.
What's funny is that comparing the World Cup to the World Series actually makes even more sense when looking deeper into the overall numbers for the sport on TV during the year.
The initial ratings for MLB coverage on cable television this year was comparable at the start of the season to early-morning EPL coverage. Surely the ratings in most local markets are higher for MLB than for MLS, but looking nationally, if we combine ratings for all live baseball on television and compare that to the dozens of live soccer matches from around the world people in America are now able to watch, the numbers might surprise some traditional American sports fans. In other words, it's closer than one might think.
MLS may never have the ratings boon some American fans want it to receive, but soccer—as a sport—is collectively growing at a rapid pace in this country.
World Cup vs. Olympics
Those writers who say we must compare the World Cup to the Olympics are right—both are big events that involve Americans representing our country. We have always tuned in to that.
They are wrong, however, in suggesting that a made-for-TV prime-time event like the Olympics is a better comparison than other big live single-sport events in America.
Other than patriotic allegiance and the once-every-four-years novelty of both events, the two aren't remotely the same in terms of a television-viewing experience.
Remember, NBC routinely records big events to show in prime time to maximize its ratings. There are no huge watch parties all around the country for swimming or figure skating.
The U.S. Olympic hockey victory over Russia was incredible and had an amazing rating for an early morning game. That game had 4.1 million people in America tune in, peaking at 6.4 million at the end of the game. The semifinals against Canada drew 3.9 million viewers.
If you want to compare soccer to the Olympics, that's the comparison.
The Olympics tap into a sense of nationalism in a way the World Cup never can, in part because of the sheer volume of American athletes participating in the Olympics and the simple fact that we bring home an awful lot of medals.
Yet the Olympics coverage on TV purposefully shifts from event to event to keep the widest possible audience interested, focusing largely on events the United States has the best chances to win.
People love to watch Americans win.
Imagine, for one second, if NBC welcomed an Olympic viewing audience one night and Bob Costas explained that for the next two hours all we could watch is men's figure skating, a popular event around the world but one the United States had little chance to win a medal in. There would be no whip-around to other, more exciting events. There would be no highlight packages of all the gold medals the United States had won that day.
Just men's figure skating, for two hours, and no commercial breaks. What do you think the Olympics ratings would be that night?
That, for better or worse, is soccer. The Olympics are purposefully structured to be all things to all people. Soccer is one thing, and while it may not be for all people, it's certainly reaching a lot more than it used to.
The "What Does It All Mean" Conclusion
So what do the numbers actually mean? Well, here's what they mean to me.
I get to write about sports every day, and there are some wonderfully magnanimous people who pay me for these words. If nobody was reading my words, I wouldn't be writing them. If nobody cared about soccer, I would be writing about the NBA draft or NFL minicamps or something entirely different right now.
My job is particularly fun because I get to write about some of the biggest events in the world. Super Bowls, NBA Finals, Masters, All-Star Games, Olympics…you name it, and I get to write about it. And of all those events over the last three years, I have never seen the type of interest in my words as I've seen during the World Cup. Never.
What is your favorite American sport?
The article I wrote the day Landon Donovan was not selected for the U.S. World Cup team has, to date, more reads than any other article I have ever written about anything in my life, by nearly double.
I've written about Richard Sherman from Super Bowl Media Day. I've written about Tim Tebow and Tiger Woods and Peyton Manning and Aaron Hernandez and Lance Armstrong and Michael Sam and Donald Sterling, and nothing has even come close to the interest for a story about soccer. Heck, I wrote a story about Copa America coming to the United States that has more reads than almost any NFL story I've ever written.
What does that tell us? For starters, there is an audience out there of fans who care about the sport of soccer, and while the numbers aren't as big as some of the more traditional American sports on television, it doesn't have to be for the game to thrive.
This is a huge country, and while soccer fans have spent decades trying to convince people who think soccer is boring or there isn't enough scoring or the flopping makes the players look like wimps or whatever reason they can come up with to not watch the game to start caring, it's not necessary anymore.
Enough people already care. More than 27 million people watched the United States play a soccer match in the World Cup. The audience showed up, and it continues to show up for other matches in the World Cup as well.
The television networks have shown up too. The recent MLS television deal tripled the TV revenue the American league will bring in. Granted, it's still far behind the NHL deal, which is far behind the NBA, MLB or NFL, but it's a start of something bigger for soccer in America.
The upcoming EPL rights deal should create an enormous bidding war in America, on the heels of Fox outbidding ESPN for the next run of World Cups and BeIN Sports outbidding everyone for La Liga and Serie A rights over the last few years.
In some ways, there is too much soccer on TV right now, and too many channels to watch it all. So you may not care about soccer—though if you got this far in the story you probably care a little bit—but people do. Television executives do. Millions of fans week in and week out do.
And when a big event comes up and the United States has a fighting chance to compete with the power teams in the world, tens of millions of people will gather to watch.
Additionally, our nation is becoming more culturally diverse, so while more "traditional" Americans may not be flocking to the sport, what makes someone "traditionally" American is being redefined by the day. The more globally-minded our population gets, the more popular the world's game will become.
The World Cup is the biggest sporting event on the planet. This year, it's really starting to feel that way in America.