World Cup ratings hit a 16-year high in U.S.

Fans watching soccer in droves despite drone of vuvuzelas

Even the B-flat drone of the vuvuzelas hasn't tempered America's enthusiasm for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, and as the tournament heads into the third round of the group stage, ratings are at a 16-year high.

Through the first 14 matches of the World Cup, ESPN and ABC have delivered an average crowd of 3.35 million viewers, marking a 64% increase from the same period in 2006, when the nets drew 2.9 million fans. The initial portion of the round-robin stage was distinguished by the much-anticipated June 12 U.S.-England tie, which drew 13 million viewers on ABC, making it the most-watched first round World Cup game in U.S. broadcast history.

Spanish-language broadcaster Univision also drew a big crowd last Saturday, serving up 4.11 million viewers with its coverage of the 1-1 Yanks-Brits match. The Group C battle stands as Univision's second most-watched U.S. World Cup match ever, trailing only the U.S.-Mexico round-of-16 showdown in 2002 (4.2 million). Through its first 17 broadcasts, Univision averaged 2.24 million viewers (data for 2006 coverage was unavailable at press time).

If the early numbers aren't enough to convince skeptics that soccer is becoming America's fifth major sport, consider this: In 2006, 99.7 million viewers turned to ESPN, ABC and Univision for their World Cup fix. All told, the nation accounted for the eighth-largest aggregate of global World Cup viewers, up from its No. 23 ranking in 1998.

Then there's the outpouring of support for the U.S. side. When midfielder Clint Dempsey slipped a wobbler past luckless England keeper Robert Green, the rangy Texan all but ensured a solid draw for the June 18 USA-Slovenia match. "In those games the American team is in, we're going to do great numbers," said ESPN executive vp John Skipper. And while a trip to the round of 16 would keep the ratings fires burning, Skipper said he believes viewership "will be up dramatically whether they stay in or not."

Granted, the deliveries would metastasize at an even greater rate if ESPN or Univision were credited for taproom and taqueria audiences. As neither net has made guarantees against Arbitron's unaccredited ARB-TV service, millions of fans will go uncounted. "You go into it knowing you're going to have a lot of bonus viewing around this big event, but we don't factor that into the CPM," said David Lawenda, Univision Communications' president of ad sales and marketing. "But we've already booked more revenue for this year's World Cup, and that speaks volumes to what the World Cup means to our audience."

Along with the linear viewership, the tournament has drawn a sizable live audience to the Web. If nothing else, the World Cup appears to be proving the power of ESPN's cross-platform heft. Based on early research, ESPN through Day 3 has recorded a 13% reach lift from non-TV platforms, which encompasses all World Cup content (not just live games) delivered by, and mobile platforms, as well as ESPN Radio and ESPN The Magazine.

At press time, Bristol was unable to provide unique average audience numbers for live games on; that said, 1.3 million users visited the site in the first 72 hours, accounting for 73.6 million minutes of viewing, or nearly an hour per user.

"We're off to a flying start," said Glenn Enoch, ESPN's vp for integrated media research, adding that ESPN3 had drawn more traffic in those initial three days than during all of June 2009. (At that time ESPN3 -- then branded ESPN360 -- was available in half of the 50 million households it reaches today.)

Univision is also streaming all 64 games online for free. "We've set new records each day since the start," said Kevin Conroy, president of Univision Interactive Media. Through June 15, had tracked 6 million visits in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, double its 2006 traffic. The site averaged 250,000 unique viewers during live matches, peaking with 130,000 concurrent users during the Brazil-North Korea match. "What's really notable is the level of engagement," said Conroy, adding that the average time of a typical viewing session is 30 minutes.

While Web traffic is significant, live mobile streaming may be seeing the biggest uptick. Though neither ESPN nor its mobile partners could provide total audience numbers for live mobile streaming, according to Ray DeRenzo of MobiTV, this year's Cup is the "biggest single viewing event in our history." Similarly, Qualcomm's Flo TV said the World Cup had already drawn the third largest audience in its history, behind Barack Obama's inauguration and Michael Jackson's funeral.

Back on the big screen, both ESPN and Univision have reserved a limited amount of inventory for clients who want to jump into the title match. "We're watching to see how things progress," said Ed Erhardt, ESPN's president of customer marketing and sales. "We don't have a lot left to sell, but we'll see what opportunities arise when we know who makes it to the finals."

Anthony Crupi and Mike Shields are senior editors at Mediaweek.