One Year Later: A World Cup Carryover?

Part of the Final Project for JRNL 10

Statistics from the most recent FIFA World Cup seem to undercut the long-held stereotype about soccer’s lack of popularity in the United States.  According to reports, over 100 million Americans tuned in to the tournament, which was held last summer in South Africa, marking an increase from past tournaments.  Roughly a year later, this spike begs the question as to whether there has and will be a carryover effect from the World Cup, which would see the sport maintain a consistent American following beyond the popular quadrennial event.

TV by the Numbers reports that the 2010 edition of the tournament was the most-watched World Cup on English-language television in the United States.  The same website adds that “an estimated 111.6 million U.S. viewers watched at least six minutes of the 2010 World Cup,” citing an analysis from The Nielsen Company. This figure marks a 22% increase from the previous World Cup.  According to Bleacher Report, the World Cup Final, in which Spain defeated the Netherlands, was the most-watched soccer game in United States history, being seen by over 24 million Americans, up from the 19 million who watched the 2006 final.

It is hard to definitively say whether or not there has been a carryover from the World Cup in terms of Americans following the sport in other capacities.  On the one hand, Americans traditionally have only followed soccer en masse during the World Cup, meaning that the strong ratings for the 2010 tournament do not necessarily indicate a carryover effect will take place.  Richard Corliss of Time Magazine compared mass American interest in soccer to “the Olympics [and] the Presidential election,” saying “we pay attention briefly, and then for four years we don’t.”   In addition, television ratings for Major League Soccer, the top professional league in the United States, are actually down since the World Cup. Television ratings for the league’s most recent championship game played in November 2010 were down 44% from the 2009 game, and dropped 28% from the 2008 championship, according to Football-Marketing.comMLS-Talk reports that the league’s overall regular season television ratings fell by 12% from 2009 to 2010.

On the other hand, while ratings for MLS, a league that is considered inferior to Europe’s elite leagues, are down, American viewership of Europe’s best competition is up.  This increase could be evidence of a carryover from the World Cup, with more Americans wanting to see the highest of play.  Television ratings in the United States for the UEFA Champions League, Europe’s top international club competition, are up this year, with United States viewership of semifinal matches almost doubling viewership of the same round last year.  The round’s first leg, which featured Manchester United versus Schalke 04, and Real Madrid against rival Barcelona, drew an American audience of 1.5 million people, which amounted to a 93% increase over the first leg of last year’s semifinal, according to TV by the Numbers. The matches between Barcelona and Real Madrid included, among others, David Villa, Xavi, Xabi Alonso, and Sergio Ramos, all of whom featured prominently on Spain’s team that won the 2010 World Cup.

MarketWatch reports that average American viewership for the Round of 16 of the Champions League is up this year as well, with one television executive being quoted as saying “the World Cup was so well-received that it helped lift all soccer.” The executive, David Nathanson, executive vice-president of Fox Soccer, which broadcasts the Champions League in the United States, added that “our job is to capture the World Cup’s halo effect and keep that momentum going.”

Also, while television numbers for MLS are down, in-stadium attendance has risen.  According to Soccer America, league-wide attendance in 2010 was up 4% from the previous season, with nine of the league’s fifteen returning teams also experiencing increases in attendance during this time.

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