We hear it every four years: American sports fans don’t care about soccer.
As much of the globe eagerly anticipates the kickoff to 2014’s World Cup on June 12, the U.S. appetite for the world’s most popular sport—or lack thereof—is back in the spotlight.
That story line, however, appears to be shifting.
The narrative began to flip four years ago when ABC drew a record 15.5 million for the last World Cup final—between two European nations, Spain and the Netherlands. An additional 8.8 million U.S. viewers watched on Univision, bringing the total to nearly 24.4 million.
Overall, the 2010 World Cup earned robust numbers for ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC, with viewership spiking 41% over the 2006 Cup, buoyed by the Americans’ rare appearance in the knockout round of the tournament. That Cup also gave U.S. soccer perhaps its most noteworthy moment to date: Landon Donovan’s last-second goal to defeat Algeria and advance out of the group stage.
Further proof of soccer’s rise came from an opposite Donovan moment, when U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann last month left the popular and long-tenured star off the World Cup national team roster. Donovan’s exclusion sparked legitimate controversy, prompting ESPN’s Bob Ley to speak with Klinsmann during that day’s SportsCenter. That kind of coverage has been a rare occurrence for U.S. team soccer.
“Who would have thought the selection of the 23 [members of the national team] would make such national headlines?” concluded Ley during that May 23 interview, who then commented the U.S. was evolving into a “proper” soccer nation.
“Every four years, U.S. soccer has this opportunity, this platform,” former national team member and current ESPN analyst Alexi Lalas said during an event last month to promote ESPN’s coverage. Perhaps when it comes to truly luring in enough of a U.S. audience to be considered among the top seasonal U.S. sports, this may just be soccer’s year.
If You Build It, They Will Come
According to Seth Ader, senior director of marketing for ESPN, 41% of Americans consider themselves fans of professional soccer, and Argentinian star Lionel Messi was ranked No. 7 in a recent poll of most popular athletes, the first time a soccer player cracked the top 10. “We can say that we are a soccer nation, and that’s not something we could have said 12 years ago,” Ader said.
As with the Olympics, it’s much easier to get casual viewers—the lifeblood of any sport’s TV fortunes—to tune in by slapping “USA” across a uniform. But what networks are increasingly finding is that fans will watch even when national pride isn’t at stake.
“By all accounts, soccer is an ascendant sport,” said ESPN president John Skipper. “We have to be there.”
One of the challenges soccer faces that top U.S. sports like basketball or football don’t have to worry about is related to that sense of nationalism. Unlike those sports, it’s well known that the best soccer players—and, in turn, the top leagues—don’t reside in this country. And it has never been easy to inspire that same kind of never-say-die passion for overseas outfits.
Despite those challenges, NBC Sports saw an opportunity two years ago when it nabbed rights to the English Premier League, considered one of the top soccer outfits in the world, and it has put a different spin on the ball. “I think that what happens with American audiences is they want to watch the best of the best,” said Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC and NBCSN. “There are some remarkably great athletes playing the English Premier League, and people are drawn to that.”
NBC spent $250 million on three years’ worth of Premier League broadcast rights. In its first year of coverage, which wrapped last month, the league drew a record 31.5 million Americans to NBC Sports Group’s coverage, according to Nielsen, which more than doubled the 13.3 million who watched the previous season on ESPN, ESPN2 and Fox Soccer.
While some of those gains can be attributed to growing interest in the sport, it was also the largest platform the Premier League has ever had in the U.S. So much competition in the sports marketplace—since 2012, both NBC and Fox have launched their own cable sports networks—has provided more TV real estate for underserved sports to snatch up. Soccer has been an early benefactor.
NBC used its coverage of the Premier League—which included live broadcasts of all 380 games on one platform or another— to help prop up NBCSN, giving the two-yearold net some of its most-viewed telecasts.
“It has a lot to do with it, and I would think the Premier League would tell you the same thing,” said Miller of the increased coverage for the league.
NBC isn’t the only U.S. sports network to feature international soccer as a major part of its programming. The U.S. version of young upstart beIN Sports uses the top leagues in Spain (La Liga), France (Ligue 1) and Italy (Serie A) as its main programming staples. Fox late last year also renewed its exclusive media rights deals for three more seasons of the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League.
There’s No Place Like Home
While investment in top international leagues has been critical to the growth of soccer in America, as any NFL or NBA fan will argue, you need a strong domestic league.
Major League Soccer has struggled to gain meaningful traction, having long been viewed as being of lesser quality and talent than its overseas counterparts. The league, thanks to a new eight-year rights deal that begins next year with ESPN, Fox and Univision, is confident it will gain more viewers.
Those prospects look a bit rosier thanks to perhaps the most important aspect of the deal: The establishment of national “Game of the Week” windows on all three networks, giving the league a consistent TV schedule it has never enjoyed in its 20-year history.
“We wanted partners that would align with our brand, partners that were committed to the domestic game,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said during a press conference last month announcing the deal. The league’s expiring TV contract included games on six days of the week and more than 20 different start times.
For ESPN, which has carried MLS since its inception, the deal helps the network maintain a footprint in the sport once it hands off the World Cup to Fox next year. “We’re bullish on where this sport is going overall,” said Skipper, who has mentioned several times his belief in soccer’s stateside prospects. “I think the national TV ratings will come.”
The new deals will coincide with MLS’ expansion to Orlando, Fla., and a second team in New York by next year, as well as new clubs in Atlanta and Miami over the next few years. At present, the league has 19 teams throughout North America, including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.
Fox is continuing its battle against ESPN through soccer, having outbid the Worldwide Leader for World Cup rights in addition to its own part of the MLS deal, which should strengthen the broadcaster’s net gains.
“We have an extremely rabid fan base for MLS,” said Eric Shanks, Fox Sports president and COO. “What we need to do is expand that reach.” Shanks is also hopeful the increased exposure will keep some of the best American players from signing with foreign clubs. “The best way to support the national team is through a strong domestic league,” he said.
And all the involved networks are banking on increased exposure leading to a continued increase of that fan base. “I don’t know if there is a ceiling to it,” said Miller. “I think there is always room for growth.”
A World of Influence
When the World Cup does kick off, it will be more than USA flags that litter the streets, of course, especially given the increasing shift in the cultural tide.
Garber says that more than 30% of the MLS fan base is Hispanic, the largest such percentage of any pro league.
“There are a lot more international folks living here,” said Miller. “They already have a predisposition to loving the game.” Miller also believes that a lot of viewers who are now in the all-important 18-49 demographic grew up with the sport as it was making waves among the rec and high school leagues. “Our country has become a lot more of a melting pot,” he said.
That’s why Skipper is confident that World Cup viewership will not tail off if the Americans suffer an early exit, something many predict. The U.S. will compete in what many pundits have called the “group of death,” which features international soccer heavyweights Portugal and Germany. But the networks airing soccer—following the example of the national team—are warming to the challenge.
“We don’t sit around with clenched fists going ‘Oh my gosh, if the U.S. doesn’t win we have a problem,’” Skipper said.