Was this the best World Cup ever? If you ask American soccer fans, it might have been.
Without question, we witnessed the most exciting group stage in recent memory, topped by some amazing late-game dramatics in each of the knockout rounds.
Brazil's undoing as the host nation in the semifinals may be the story of the entire tournament, eclipsed only by Germany's deserved culmination as the best team in the world.
The 2014 World Cup was won by the best team, with a goal in the 113th minute that was, without question, one of the best of the tournament. Andre Schurrle took on two defenders down the left flank and put a perfect cross onto the near post for late-game substitute Mario Goetze—seemingly forgotten after the group stage by Germany coach Jogi Low—who chested the ball to a pitch-perfect volley that screamed across the goal into the far netting.
Germany are the champions, and none of us will forget the keyboard shortcut for an umlaut ever again.
There was more interest in this World Cup than ever before in America, with ESPN and Univision breaking records for matches played not only by the United States but throughout the entire tournament. Twitter routinely boasted those elaborate heat maps with tweets about each game, illustrating just how social the game of soccer—football or futbol, perhaps to you—has become both around the world and in America.
And that's where the rest of this will stay: America. Since the United States were knocked out by Belgium, people who tired of watching the World Cup found reason after reason to suggest the game will never "get big" in this country. Seriously, it seems everyone and their governor was writing another epitaph for the beautiful game.
So before we, as Americans, collectively pack up our scarves and go back to calling matches "games," boots "cleats" and draws "ties," let's spit out some truths about exactly where the game of soccer—football or futbol—stands in this country.
The sport is incredibly healthy in America. People like former Pennsylvania governor and local NFL television analyst Ed Rendell—linked above in an op-ed for the Philadelphia Daily News—and Gersh Kuntzman of the New York Daily News want us to think that because there was a significant drop-off in viewers for the World Cup once the United States lost, the interest in the game is falsely inflated.
Rendell referred to Kuntzman's ratings argument in his op-ed, writing:
Consider that the Brazil-Germany semifinal game was watched by 6.6 million viewers on ESPN and another 5.8 viewers on Univision. Compare that to the viewership of the game in England, where it was watched by 51 percent of all viewers, and France, where the viewership was also over 50 percent. These numbers led the New York Daily News to say that "after the U.S. was eliminated, America's TV ratings collapsed like a writhing midfielder" and "Do Americans care about the World Cup? Not when the Americans are no longer playing!"
By simple mathematics, the Brazil-Germany match averaged more than 12 million viewers, on a Tuesday afternoon in the summer, who watched a 7-1 World Cup blowout. And those ratings actually increased near the end of the match, buoying to nearly 15 million viewers, which still does not include the record-breaking streaming numbers.
By comparison, ESPN's 17 Monday Night Football games last season averaged 13.7 million viewers, per Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated.
Does nobody care about football, or just…football?
After spending half a column using the drop-off in ratings to say the sport has not, in fact, "arrived in the United States to take its place as our fifth major professional team sport," Rendell flip-flops like the great politician he is, to explain that he does think the sport will grow in interest between now and the 2018 World Cup.
There, he is right. And if he, or anyone else who may pen the "see you in four years, soccer" articles now that the World Cup is over cares to do, check the math. The numbers do not lie.
American soccer can surely be bigger than it is, but that doesn't mean soccer in America isn't pretty huge already.
OK, that's a sportswriter trope there, so let me explain the difference.
In order to talk about the growth of soccer in America, we need to stop looking at American soccer in the traditional sense of geographic borders.
We need, rather, to think about American soccer in the sense of television availability.
With ESPN, Univision, Fox, NBC and beIN Sports leading the way in terms of soccer coverage in this country, how we define "American" soccer has to change from this point forward.
Yes, MLS is the professional soccer league in America, and the ratings when compared to other uniquely American sports prove there is a lot of work to be done in the MLS offices to get people to pay attention. The league can boast about ESPN, Fox and Univision putting up hundreds of millions of dollars and what the new TV deal will do to grow the league, but as long as the product isn't as good in MLS as it is elsewhere in the world, ratings will continue to suffer.
Truth be told, NBC's coverage of the Barclays Premier League and beIN Sports' coverage of La Liga and Serie A do no favors to MLS. Heck, the Spanish-language coverage of those leagues, coupled with Liga MX and other international telecasts available on American television, are direct competition for MLS…and, yet, all still part of American soccer.
NBC and its cable networks grew its ratings in America throughout the EPL season last year, with Saturday and Sunday morning games routinely averaging well over 500,000 viewers by the second half of the season. Championship Sunday—NBC showed 10 consecutive matches across its array of cable and network platforms—was watched by 4.9 million viewers, per USA Today, in 2014.
By comparison, the Stanley Cup Final, shown on some of those same networks, but in prime time, averaged five million viewers. The entire NHL playoffs, on NBC, NBCSN and CNBC—same channels as EPL matches this season—averaged 1.445 million viewers, which is the fourth-biggest number for hockey playoffs, according to a report by Variety, in the last 20 years.
We can spin numbers any way we want, but NBC got 1.24 million viewers for Cardiff vs. Swansea in February, so take that with a grain of salt, increased hockey ratings.
Still, that's just the tip of the iceberg in showing that, in America, soccer is much more than MLS.
European soccer is big business for TV networks now, so much so that Fox shelled out beaucoup bucks to grab the World Cup from ESPN, supplementing the road to 2018 with more Champions League action, as well as a return of the Bundesliga to American television with a huge partnership that begins next year.
While the World Cup is the most watched soccer event on the planet because of the nationalism and unique format of the tournament taking place every four years, the best soccer on the planet in terms of quality on the field has to come at the club level, most notably in the highest levels of the UEFA Champions League.
Last year, the Champions League final on Fox drew 1.9 million viewers, with an additional 1.2 million watching on Fox Deportes. The semifinals, both shown on weekday afternoons, averaged more than a million viewers.
Those numbers, frankly, are terrible for games that important, especially now after seeing how huge the World Cup ratings have been for ESPN.
The Champions League final boasted crosstown rivals in Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid and featured one of the two best players on the planet in Cristiano Ronaldo in the most important non-World Cup match on the planet this year. But don't blame a lack of interest in the sport for the lackluster ratings. Blame Fox.
Part of the reason that NBC's EPL ratings look so impressive is that every comparison to the year before—primarily on Fox-run networks—make the ratings nearly double. Many of the low-rated MLS numbers over the past three or four seasons have been in part because of Fox's lack of a viable cable presence and general lack of interest in promoting anything in terms of cable sports programming—something the media giant hopes is changing with the dedicated push of Fox Sports 1.
(Dear Fox, you have four years to get your promotional machine right in time for the World Cup in 2018. Wait…you have a women's World Cup in 11 months. Let's get it going now, Fox. You're making the sport you paid a lot of money for look bad.)
Fox notwithstanding, the growth of European soccer in America overall has been up considerably over the last 10 years, and the television-rights fights show that network executives expect that to increase as the sport begins to target a new generation of American fans.
Germany's victory in the World Cup will only increase interest in the Bundesliga in America, so much that Bayern Munich have already opened up offices in the United States. From SportsBusiness Daily's HJ Mai:
It’s a long-term strategy what we are doing here. It has to be sustainable,” [club executive Joerg] Wacker said. “It’s not just flying over, playing a tour and leaving.”
The club also is interested in new revenue streams, though finances are not on the forefront of its U.S. strategy during the early phase. “We are open for new partnerships. For U.S. companies who are maybe interested in going to Europe,” Wacker said. “I think we are an amazing brand with great image results.”
BeIN Sports, which was created in 2012 by Al Jazeera to steal all the international league football rights away from traditional powers like ESPN, Fox and NBC, is still trying to get a foothold on American television.
Yet, per multichannel.com's Mike Reynolds, it is already in 15 million homes, with an additional seven million getting its Spanish-language service. In March, beIN—which has the rights to a ton of domestic leagues, CONCACAF qualifiers and Copa America—had nearly two million viewers tune in for El Clasico between Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Now, 400 million people around the world watched that match, so boasting that a measly two million watched it in America is kind of a joke. But that's still nearly 10 times the rating an average MLS match gets, and it's more viewers than the average hockey playoff game got this year, too.
The old "Big Four" team sports in America, as Rendell mentioned, surely need to be redefined.
It's the big one, as the NFL routinely out-rates every other sport combined, with the NBA a distant but clear second. Everything else is fighting for third.
And yet, there's the World Cup, with comparable ratings to the NFL regular season throughout the tournament, with the U.S. matches beating the numbers for the NBA Finals while also coming close to NFL playoff ratings.
Now, there's an argument to be made that much of the interest in the World Cup was more about nationalism than soccer sustainability. The Olympics are an example some have used to add perspective to interest in the World Cup, and while that makes sense, it's hard to compare the two because the Olympics are almost always tape-delayed events that are edited to showcase as much American excellence as possible.
The World Cup—let's be honest—is far from that.
But back to the point of the "Big Four" raised by Rendell and other like-minded pundits this week. The question people are asking now that the World Cup is over and we can all get back to our normal sports-viewing lives is: Can soccer ever get into that category?
It already is. The numbers for EPL, MLS, La Liga, Serie A, Liga MX and Champions League would combine to be higher than the NHL ratings, on average, for sure. We've already established that.
Add in the fact that U.S. soccer ratings are bigger than any of those domestic leagues, even for most friendlies or qualifying matches, and the entire sport—soccer in America, if you will—is doing fine.
It might even be doing better than Major League Baseball this season.
In June, Sports Media Watch noted that Fox's ratings for MLB, in prime time, averaged around two million viewers in late May and June. ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball started the season averaging about the same—2.12 million—for the first five telecasts of the year, while Fox Sports 1's first eight MLB games this season averaged under half a million viewers on cable.
Sure, when you compare soccer to the NFL or college football, it looks like nobody cares. However, when you look at overall soccer numbers and compare them to the NHL or MLB, the whole debate about whether soccer is "here to stay" or if it's a once-every-four-years sport is patently ridiculous.
While MLS ratings are in need of a major boost, the overall numbers for the sport continue to grow. The World Cup will only serve to boost that development.
A World Cup final featuring the best team against the most talented player in Lionel Messi and the palpable buzz it created in America was reason enough to suggest that this country loves a big event. But it also showed that the sport is thriving with fans here too; we just need to redefine what American soccer is, and who American viewers are as well.
I cannot tell you how many interviews this month had hosts discussing the World Cup ratings without mentioning the Univision numbers. Here is a friendly reminder that lots of people in America who love soccer don't always watch the same channels as those of us who speak predominantly English.
Univision averaged more than 5.5 million viewers for the World cup semifinals. The Liga MX Clausura broadcast on UniMas averaged 2.5 million viewers this year—that's more than almost any MLB game this season on Fox or ESPN—and the rating for the U.S.-Mexico friendly in April did nearly four million viewers on UniMas to around a million for ESPN's broadcast.
Now, wait a minute. Wait a flag-waving minute.
The United States and Mexico played in a friendly during a World Cup year and only one million people watched that match on ESPN's English language telecast?
Contextually speaking, that's horrible, and it's that kind of paltry rating that has the people suggesting soccer can never break into the mainstream of American sports.
The United States men's national team's success at the World Cup has to change that.
Interest in U.S. soccer—not just World Cup and qualifying interest, but attention to international friendlies and competitions like the Gold Cup and Olympic qualifying—needs to grow. Interest in anything and everything U.S. soccer needs to grow coming out of the World Cup. That can only happen if more and more Americans who watched the sport over the last month stick with it.
I can't tell you how many times I've used this line since June, but if 1 percent of the average audience that tuned in for U.S. soccer in Brazil sticks around to watch MLS, ratings for America's domestic league will nearly double.
If 1 percent sticks around to watch Tim Howard at Everton or Messi at Barcelona, those numbers would nearly double as well.
MLS may never become the next NFL, but if 1 percent of the World Cup audience becomes weekly American soccer viewers, the increased interest will be palpable.
Now imagine if 2 percent stick around. Or 5 percent.
Millions of Americans watched a tournament made up of 64 soccer matches to record television ratings this month. The United States only played in four of those matches.
American soccer is growing, if you take the time to properly define what American soccer really is.
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