World Cup: USA-Portugal match sets ratings record. Will fan interest last?

The World Cup draw between the US and Portugal Sunday drew 25 million US viewers, an all-time record for soccer, and US interest in the World Cup has surged since 2010. Does that mean soccer has finally arrived in the US, or  is it destined to be like Olympic sports – wildly popular just once every four years? 

Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
A US fan holds a scarf during the 2014 World Cup G soccer match between Portugal and the US at the Amazonia arena in Manaus, Brazil, June 22, 2014. The match set a TV ratings record for a soccer game broadcast in the US

What once seemed impossible happened this past weekend: America watched a soccer game together. Will soccer continue to be must-see TV for US fans once the World Cup is over?

The thrilling 2-2 tie between the US and Portugal in the World Cup Sunday netted nearly 25 million viewers on broadcasters ESPN and Univision. Excluding that other type of football, viewership for the match blew away those for major events in nearly every other major professional sport in the US: The NBA finals, which wrapped up last week, averaged 15.5 million viewers over five games.  Baseball’s World Series averaged 14.9 million views over six games. And as with other sports, that doesn’t take into account the fans who watched the game in large groups, at bars, restaurants, and open fields in major cities like Chicago.

It was the most-viewed soccer match ever in the United States, by a wide margin. The runner-up was the 1999 Women’s World Cup final, with 17.9 million viewers.

Broadcaster ESPN reported Monday that the game was its most-watched event ever, outside of NFL and college football. Perhaps even more impressively, the game neared viewership for college football’s BCS National Championship game in January, which attracted 25.7 million viewers.

The sky-high ratings for Sunday’s game coincide with a surging American interest in this year’s World Cup, especially compared with four years ago. Though the Cup is still in its early stages, audiences for all matches on carriers ABC, ESPN, and ESPN2 are up 50 percent compared with 2010, according to the Walt Disney Company. Games have averaged 4.3 million viewers; they averaged 2.8 million in 2010.

By other measures, too, World Cup fever in the US is starting to look downright European or South American. The sports merchandise site sold more US soccer gear during the first five days of the 2014 World Cup than it did through the entire month-long event in 2010, according to Bloomberg. Over 8 million World Cup-related tweets were sent during the US-Portugal match, according to Twitter, and Facebook reported over 10 million users posting about the game. For maybe the first time ever, American fans discovered that a tie can be a thriller. In fact, more than a few are actively rooting for a “Gentlemen’s tie” in the match between the US and Germany Thursday – a draw would send both teams on to the knockout stages of the tournament.

So, does all of this mean soccer is on the fast track to becoming one of the most beloved professional sports in the US? It depends on who you ask.

On the one hand, youth  participation in the sport has been robust for years – US Youth Soccer had 100,000 members in 1974; it had over 3 million in 2012. That means a wider pool of potential fans with deeper knowledge of the game. Furthermore, soccer is popular with two very important demographics in terms of growth in the US: young people and Hispanics.

Soccer is the second-favorite sport among 18- to 29-year-olds in the US and the favorite sport of Hispanics, which are the fastest-growing minority group in the country, according to the Huffington Post. Betting on these growth segments, NBC paid $250 million in 2012 to broadcast Barclays Premier League games from Europe over the next three seasons.

Major League Soccer in the US, too, has grown by leaps and bounds over the past decade, nearly doubling the number of  league teams in the US and growing fan attendance to the point that its comparable to that of the NBA and the NHL.

But on the other hand, TV ratings for the MLS are still tiny during non-World Cup years. Despite growing game attendance, the league’s December final between Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake averaged a paltry 505,000 viewers, its lowest viewership ever. Broadcasts of UEFA and Premier League matches in Europe have fared better, but some have suggested that the eye-popping numbers for Sunday’s game are more akin to the huge, yet periodic interest drawn by sports like gymnastics and track and field in the Olympics every four years, rather than a sign of sustainable interest.

Still, demographic trends all point in soccer’s favor in becoming a popular sport year-round. And if not? Well, having Olympic-level popularity isn’t half-bad, either. 

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