The real test for soccer in the US begins now

July 2, 2014
July 2, 2014
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The headlines today (left) look different to how they did four years ago (right).New York Post.

It’s over. Unless you are living under a rock, by now you should know that America’s World Cup dream died in Brazil last night, when the US men’s national team was defeated 2-1 by Belgium.

The USA team exceeded expectations after managing to escape the so-called “group of death,” so the tournament should still be considered a huge success for head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and the team. The question that remains after yesterday’s defeat—and the nation’s engagement in that game—is whether the momentum the sport of soccer has gained as a TV sport can be sustained.

The USA’s games weren’t even on ABC (the free-to-air network covering the tournament alongside ESPN) but they still drew record-breaking audiences on cable and the internet. We are still waiting for the figures from last nights game to be confirmed, but in the group stages, the Portugal match drew 25 million viewers.

As a modified version of  a chart from the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson shows, that’s more than the typical audience for a basketball championship game (although it’s still miles short of American football’s Super Bowl).

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Yet it is clear from comments by provocateurs such as the conservative commentator Ann Coulter that there is still uneasiness about the sport in certain circles. The true gauge of interest levels in the sport  (and the World Cup) might come now with the US no longer playing.

I have previously argued that while soccer will never unseat baseball as the national pastime, or football as the national sport, it is finally settling into a sustainable place in the country’s psyche. There is a huge latent audience for the sport because participation at youth levels are so high.

The big networks seem to think the sport has a sustainable future on US TV screens.

NBC is in its last season of running America’s flagship domestic tournament, Major League Soccer (MLS), but it has been heavily promoting its coverage of the English Premier League (a foreign league, no less) during the World Cup, with ads like these during matches in select cities. Last season, five EPL games drew more than a million viewers on NBC and NBCSN (its cable sports network). The new season begins in August.  “We expect interest in our Premier League & MLS telecasts to grow,” a spokesman told Quartz via email, though he declined to predict ratings.

In May, ESPN, Fox Sports and Univision struck a record deal for rights to broadcast MLS matches for the next eight seasons—crucially, in consistent Friday and Sunday night time-slots.

But the strongest indication that TV soccer has truly come of age in the US might be signs that Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Sports  is using the sport to cement itself as a serious player in the country’s cable sports landscape (as Murdoch has done just about everywhere else). Earlier this year, Fox Sports secured TV rights for the next two World Cups. The rumored price for the ability to show those games to Americans? A cool half a billion dollars.

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