While ratings for the World Cup and Wimbledon showed some bright spots, the recent run of poor performances by Americans in international sports competition is robbing the networks of some even bigger ratings paydays.
NBC and ESPN's Wimbledon, ABC/ ESPN's World Cup and OLN's Tour de France coverage all missed out in the absence of successful American stars this summer, not long after NBC had to deal with many of the biggest domestic names disappointing on the Olympic stage this winter in Torino, Italy.
Artie Bulgrin, ESPN senior VP of research and sales development, says that, for sports with smaller core audiences like soccer and tennis, the success of the Americans can really move the needle: “When depending on a more casual event audience, it makes more of an impact.”
Overall ratings for the World Cup were strong in 2006, especially the combined 17 million people seeing the France-Italy World Cup final on ABC and Univision.
But a poor performance by the American team, which did not advance past the first round of the tournament, robbed the Disney networks of a chance for an even bigger ratings payday.
Had the Americans been able to defeat Ghana in the third World Cup match, they and Disney would have been rewarded with a US-Brazil match-up that would have been one of the biggest sporting events of the year. Bulgrin says it's possible that ratings for that contest would have rivaled that of the championship game.
At Wimbledon, not a single U.S. man or woman reached the single's quarterfinals for the first time since 1911, even though 23 Americans began the tournament, including big names like Andre Agassi and Venus Williams.
One result was that ratings on NBC for the women's final between France's Amelie Mauresmo and Belgium's Justine Henin-Hardenne were off 45% from last year's all-American final between Venus Williams and Lindsay Davenport.
And while American cyclist Lance Armstrong helped ESPN drum up buzz for its ESPY Awards July 16, his retirement contributed to a nearly 50% plunge for OLN's early ratings for the Tour de France. But that could change if American Floyd Landis continues to lead the pack.
According to David Carter of sports consultancy Sports Business Group, U.S. viewers may also be tuning out some of these events due to a perceived lack of sportsmanship.
Examples include perform- ance-enhancing–drug scandals during the Tour de France and a World Cup marred by incessant diving to draw fouls and French soccer star Zinedine Zidane's shocking head-butt in the championship game.
“Unfortunately, a lot of the buzz in international sports just tends to be around negative events right now,” Carter says, “and that is a drag on ratings.”