World Cup Soccer Is About to Get Bigger in the U.S. — But It Will Never Be Huge (Analysis)

World Cup Horizontal - H 2013
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World Cup Horizontal - H 2013

Vuvuzelas may be banned, but the call of the World Cup is louder than ever for U.S. viewers.

In the wake of strong gains for the 2010 tournament and a marked increase in soccer coverage in the time since, the 2014 games in Brazil are poised to be the biggest yet for ESPN -- though there is a natural ceiling for that growth.

"It's just never going to get to the level that it's at around the world," says Patrick Rishe, director of sports consulting firm Sportsimpacts, who points to the rising stateside coverage as the main factor in soccer's increased profile. "We have alternatives. In a lot of countries across the world, soccer, for varying reasons, it's not competing with five to eight other sports. That's what football has become in America. People want to consume it 12 months a year, even when a season isn't taking place."

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This World Cup, which officially began Thursday with the host country facing Croatia in Sao Paulo, also has the benefit of time zone proximity for American audiences. Thanks to daylight savings time in the U.S., all game times will either be contemporaneous with or one hour ahead of the East Coast. Although the 2010 tournament had the comparative disadvantage of taking place in South Africa -- which is six hours ahead of New York during the summer months -- ratings still surged 41 percent from 2006, when the event was hosted by Germany, also six hours ahead. Between ESPN, ABC and Spanish-language rights-holder Univision, more than 24 million viewers tuned in to the final -- with an average 3.26 million viewers watching ESPN's coverage of the monthlong affair.

Network senior vp and EP of event production Jed Drake has said that expectations for ratings growth this time around are "significant," declining to make any precise predictions, but ESPN's World Cup story is about to end either way. The network likely most anxious to see how the next few weeks play out is Fox Sports 1.

Fox Sports secured the broadcast rights for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments in the biggest U.S. soccer deal for an English-language network to date. Out-bidding ESPN with an offer estimated at just north of $425 million, Fox Sports quadrupled what its main competitor shelled out for the 2006 and 2010 rights. (The upcoming tournaments, it should be noted, will take place in the far less friendly time zones of Russia and Qatar, respectively.)

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"The demand and the viewership won't be four times greater, but I think Fox was competitively in a position where they felt they had to make the investment," says Rishe. "They're playing a massive game of catch-up with ESPN, and sometimes you've got to be willing to take a loss to increase visibility and exposure."

Greater still is the opportunity for Telemundo. As Fox Sports is to ESPN, Telemundo has long lived in Univision's shadow as the premier Latino network in the U.S., which has come to rival even the Big Four in ratings. Telemundo shelled out $600 million to get the next two World Cups.

Spanish-speaking viewers are a healthy portion of the U.S. soccer fan base, with more than one in three viewers watching the 2010 final on Univision. But for the rest of the audience, critical mass could come with Brazil -- where soccer's stateside profile seems as high as ever, despite the lack of a competitive team.

Even head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has ruled out Team USA as a big draw. "For us now talking about winning a World Cup," Klinsmann recently told The New York Times, "it is just not realistic."