More than halfway through the world’s largest and most popular sporting event, it would seem that the United States may have finally decided that it likes soccer, maybe, filling in the lone blank spot in the world map when it comes to interest in the game.
ESPN’s telecast of the United States’ dramatic 2-2 draw against Portugal in the 2014 FIFA World Cup on Sunday handily won the title of the most-viewed soccer match in the United States ever, across all networks, averaging 18.2 million viewers based on a 9.6 household (HH) rating. With Univision ratings included, Sunday's U.S.-Portugal match drew an average of 24.7 million viewers, according to Nielsen, ratings that put the game above the decisive Game 5 of the recent NBA finals.
The English-language telecast peaked from 7:30 to 8 p.m. ET with an average of 22.9 million viewers and an 11.9 HH rating, making it ESPN’s most-viewed program in history, excluding NFL and college football telecasts.
Not too shabby. And the coup continues a trend: The first 2014 FIFA World Cup match involving the United States (a 2-1 victory over Ghana) averaged 11.1 million viewers and a 6.3 HH rating, making it the highest-rated and most-viewed men’s soccer match for the ESPN networks on record at the time. Also, an additional 4.8 million people watched the Spanish-language broadcast on Univision, meaning that nearly 16 million people in the United States watched the country’s World Cup opener on television.
That’s down from the 17.3 million who saw the first U.S. match in the 2010 tournament, against England, but it should be noted that the match was shown on ABC and Univision on a Saturday afternoon, rather than on cable during what was still the workday for most of the country.
Also, four years ago, an impressive 19.7 million people watched the U.S.-Ghana match in the knockout round, which ended the United States’ run in the tournament. For that reason, and because it was also shown on ABC and Univision on a Saturday afternoon, the ratings comparison with the matches so far this year are deceptive.
In fact, overall, ESPN’s 2014 World Cup coverage is posting significant viewership increases over 2010 and 2006. ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC have combined to average 4.27 million viewers and a 2.6 HH rating through the first 32 matches, marking increases of 50 percent and 109 percent (vs. 2.9 million in 2010 and 2.05 million in 2006), and 44 percent and 86 percent (vs. 1.8 in 2010 and 1.4 in 2006), respectively.
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Nielsen also noted that the interest in soccer seems to be escalating outside of the World Cup. It helps that overall, networks are becoming more willing to take a chance on a non-mainstream sport in the U.S. The amount of networks — both English and Spanish language — investing in soccer programming, as well as the amount of time these networks have dedicated to airing the sport, has risen dramatically since the last World Cup.
In 2010, 11 networks aired over 2,600 telecasts of soccer events. By the end of 2013, however, 21 networks aired about 3,890 soccer event telecasts. The amount of programming hours for the game over that time saw a 43 percent increase to boot.
FOX Sports has made one of the biggest pushes, including broadcasting all of the major English Premier League games during the last season—a first, and an experiment that was successful, the network said. So successful that it has also signed a deal to show the Bundesliga—the German league—matches for the upcoming season.
Interest in homegrown Major League Soccer (MLS) is growing too: The league's TV viewership increased by 24 percent from 2009 to 2013.
And consider this: since the last World Cup, the number of adults (aged 18 and over) who have attended a major soccer match has nearly doubled, rising 87 percent since 2010 according to Nielsen Scarborough. Over that same period, the number of Americans who have watched, attended or listened to a major soccer match has increased by 32 percent.
This summer’s World Cup is proving to be the most accessible in the tournament’s history, with broadcast and streaming services available on up to 5.9 billion screens globally. This is according to Ovum, which reveals that PCs, tablets, and smartphones are providing alternatives to conventional TV viewing, accounting for 57 percent of all screens.
This holds true in the U.S. as well. In addition to setting a television viewership record, Sunday’s match also set product records on WatchESPN with a 490,000 average minute audience, and total of 1.4 million viewers and 61.7 million minutes viewed.
Second screens are also contributing to higher fan engagement. A quarter of 18-24 year olds in a Nielsen survey said they would post to social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) while tuning in to World Cup games (compared with 12 percent of all respondents) and over a third of respondents in that same demo (34 percent) would likely look up game, team or player stats on a mobile device during World Cup games.
Unlike four years ago, connected devices are playing a crucial role in evolving viewing habits for big-event TV. “Devices capable of streaming live and on-demand video – of which there now 4.7 billion – are providing additional viewing opportunities outside the appointment viewing taking place in people’s living rooms,” said Ted Hall, senior analyst at Ovum. “With the likes of tablets providing the convenience and flexibility to consume content whenever and wherever, fans are able to watch more of the tournament than ever before.”
The reliability of online streams compared with traditional broadcasts remains a concern, however. “For broadcasters and operators providing multiplatform World Cup services, supplying demand with minimal technical hiccups should be of paramount concern,” said Hall. “Having set consumer expectations for TV Everywhere, providers must now deliver on the promise of their offerings, as failure to do so can result in bad press and, more importantly, frustrated fans. While viewing live events online is improving, there is some way to go before it can compare with the reliability traditional TV distribution offers for the largest audiences.”
As U.S. interest in the World Cup hits an all-time high, advertising opportunities are escalating too. Soccer fans are dedicated to the teams they root for, avid spenders and social when it comes to digital dialogue.
Ever since the rise of the soccer mom, advertisers and programmers have been looking for a unique opportunity to connect with fans outside well-established American sports, such as NFL football or basketball. The World Cup offers a proof case for why football should be that opportunity, according to the firm.
“While the World Cup only comes around every four years, and soccer — with two non-interrupted halves — has less space for traditional TV spots, the heavy branding on both stadium signage and player kits seems to resonate with fans,” said Stephen Master, senior vice president sports, Nielsen.
Total advertising spend has ticked upward as more matches are shown in the U.S., according to Nielsen: In 2010, estimated total television advertising spend for soccerevents programming was about $265 million. By 2013, it had jumped to $378 million — a 43 percent increase.
According to Nielsen Scarborough, the potential power of adult major soccer fans (aged 18 and over) includes $88 billion in planned new auto spending over the next year; in addition to $4.4 billion in weekly grocery spending and $2.5 billion in monthly grocery spending. These fans have also spent $52 billion in home improvements over the past year.
Soccer fans are also willing to support their teams with dollars, and pay attention to related merchandise. A recent Harris Poll found that nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of people who follow the sport say they take notice of the companies that support their favorite teams and players.
Next-Gen Soccer Viewing
Despite the strides made in bringing people the beautiful game in as many ways possible, there’s still work to do. For instance, with “football” fans keen to watch the matches on the biggest screen and in the highest resolution possible, Ovum stresses that the importance of traditional broadcasting – via terrestrial, cable, satellite, or IPTV – for attracting the largest audiences and generating the most value for World Cup rights holders.
Significant innovation of the viewing experience for this World Cup is somewhat lacking, in Ovum’s view. The tournament will not, for instance, provide the launch pad for the much-vaunted 4K Ultra high-definition format – though FIFA and technology partner Sony are capturing the last three matches in 4K, very few people will see them in this resolution, with screenings limited to public venues in Rio de Janeiro.
“4K technology is far from ready for home viewing, with holes in the transmission part of the ecosystem meaning that it will be some time before audiences of any significant scale will be watching UHDTV content in their living rooms,” explained Hall. “And with FIFA abandoning its support of 3DTV for Brazil 2014 – in light of the format’s spectacular failure to capture the public’s imagination – the less-glamorous HDTV will be the preferred format of many World Cup viewers, with up to 260 million homes watching matches in high-definition.”
4K aside, the success of the World Cup in connecting with the U.S. populace is unprecedented. Will soccer ever rival the big three U.S. sports for viewership and interest? Unlikely. But maybe, just maybe, it may start holding its own—and possibly even at some point rival hockey for that coveted No. 4 sports spot.
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