World Cup's Ratings Record: How Soccer Stacks Up Against Other Sports

With a slew of big tournaments -- the NBA Finals, the Stanley Cup, the U.S. Open -- currently on the air, ESPN's 2014 FIFA opener makes a competitive debut and Univision's coverage swells.
Brazil vs. Croatia

As expected, Thursday's World Cup 2014 opening game between Brazil and Croatia brought new soccer highs to ESPN. The tournament kicked off with an estimated 4.4 million viewers — despite the fact that it aired in the middle of a workday for the entire contiguous U.S.

An overnight rating of 3.2 marked a 52 percent surge from the comparable game in South Africa. So, for ESPN, it stands as best opening game of a World Cup since it started tallying local ratings in 1998. The game fared even better among stateside Spanish speakers. Univision averaged 5.1 million viewers from the game.

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It's substantial, for sure, and a clear vote of confidence for the advertisers and broadcasters upping their investment in the sport. But how does it stack up to other big tournaments being played during a particularly sports-heavy June? The NBA and NHL are currently crowding primetime with their own championships.

If the World Cup opener is any indication of audiences to come — Team U.S. doesn't even play until June 16 — it's in far better shape than the Stanley Cup. Despite some of the highest-rated finals games in several years, hockey has nothing on the initial American audience for World Cup. Wednesday's game four of the Stanley Cup, which had the advantage of airing in primetime in the majority of the country, logged 3.4 million viewers on NBC Sports. And the biggest broadcast outing yet, Saturday's game on NBC, fetched 6.4 million.

ESPN and Univision averaged nearly 10 million viewers between them on Thursday. Advantage: soccer.

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There is also the much higher-profile battle between the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat. Even as the tournament drifts decidedly in the favor of the Spurs, the NBA Finals are obliterating all primetime competition — and it doesn't hurt that a Big Four broadcaster (ABC) provides a considerably bigger platform. With final figures not yet in for the latest game, Tuesday's game three offers a solid comparison with its 15 million viewers.

That's almost the sum of ESPN and ABC's coverage for the last World Cup final. Advantage: basketball.

An even stranger bedfellow will be Sunday's climax of the U.S. Open. Though it might come as a surprise to many, golf is a reliable source for TV viewers — and last year's Golf Network coverage of the second-biggest event on the sport's calendar brought in 8.4 million viewers on the final day. And an average 9.6 million tuned in for the 2012 final round.

A few days of golf doesn't hold a candle to a month's worth of World Cup, but looking ahead to the weekend ... Early advantage: golf.