All American eyes will be on South Africa tomorrow, with the 2010 FIFA World Cup kicking off. ESPN has marketed the tournament as much as any entity that it has invested in, and soccer fans like myself hope that it will pay dividends over time in the form of higher television ratings and greater attendance at games in the United States.
And the further the U.S. advances, the more Americans will be likely to tune in.
Tim Lemke of Fox News writes of the potential impact the World Cup will (or will not) have on the casual American sports fan.
“The (USA vs. England) game itself will provide a bump,” said Mark Abbott, president of Major League Soccer, the largest professional league in America. “When you look at last year with the Confederations Cup, that was a story that was widely followed in the United States. The game Saturday is likely to be one of the biggest games in terms of media coverage and viewership. It’s just a great opportunity for the sport.”
Soccer has grown substantially in the last 20 years in America, going from a niche sport to one that now features a viable professional league – Major League Soccer (MLS) -- and robust coverage of international matches on television and the Internet. More than 17 million people in North America tuned in to the World Cup final between Italy and France in 2006, and more than 120 million people watched at least one minute of the World Cup tournament.
In the four years since the last World Cup, soccer coverage has increased both on television and online. Networks including Fox Soccer Channel and ESPN have expanded the availability of games from the English Premier League, Italy’s Series A and Spain’s La Liga, while giving strong promotion to the UEFA Champions League, a tournament involving the top European club teams. Meanwhile, top European clubs including Real Madrid, AC Milan and others have attracted sellout crowds during tours to major U.S. cities.
But television coverage of MLS games has been flat, with only a handful of games airing nationally each week. While the league is growing in size -- it will expand from 16 to 19 teams by 2012 -- it has struggled to overcome the perception that it is not as competitive as European leagues.
Soccer's TV ratings and attendance fall well short of the established major sports in America, and sports marketing experts caution that winning a single soccer game -- or even the biggest tournament in the world -- will fix that.
“Let’s say the U.S. won the World Cup,” Berger said. “I’m not convinced that MLS will see a huge increase in their popularity and be on par with the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball.
"I see the World Cup like the Olympics. It comes around every four years. It has a huge global audience. The casual fan is going to tune in because it’s about heritage and country. But is the casual fan then going to go watch MLS? I don’t think so.”
MLS officials insist they aren’t banking the league’s future on the success or failure of the U.S. team or the World Cup in general. But early indications are that buzz over the tournament and Saturday’s game has helped.
IBISWorld, a research firm, reported this week that average attendance at MLS games is up nearly 11 percent from the same period last year. The company expects attendance will rise more than 15 percent overall for the 2010 season.
“It shouldn’t be a make or break, but one of the biggest obstacles the sport has is just pure exposure,” Hayward said. “This game just offers that, and you have to find a way to capitalize on it some way.”
So...can a successful World Cup for the United States give us more television staying power than Olympic TV stars such as short-track speedskating and swimming?
The 1994 World Cup had matches that drew more than what ABC is averaging for the Boston Celtics-Los Angeles Lakers NBA Finals. So why assume this summer's World Cup, no matter what ESPN/ABC's ratings, will have any effect on soccer's long-term U.S. TV future?
Michael Hiestand of the USA Today writes about whether the World Cup can kick-start US Soccer tv ratings-
ESPN executive vice president John Skipper, speaking from Johannesburg, suggests this go-round might be different. He cites the ancient argument that soccer is "inevitable" in the USA and "the big difference now is the higher (U.S.) interest in the sport overall."
That makes sense, given soccer has been one of the USA's most popular youth sports for decades — a sport Americans seem more likely to play than watch much. Major League Soccer's diminutive TV ratings have been moribund for years. And it's hard to imagine U.S. TV networks ever getting too psyched about soccer — it doesn't have timeouts for ads to run, let alone TV timeouts.
But ESPN's (albeit still tiny) ratings for last year's Confederations Cup final were up more than 80%. And ESPN2 has begun airing Saturday morning British soccer — giving any new soccer fans another TV option after the Cup. And, just maybe, Skipper says, the Cup could produce a freakish "flash point" that could be a turning point for U.S. soccer interest.