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Americans' World Cup fever gives soccer a leg up in TV ratings game

Via LA Times: Has the U.S. finally caught the soccer frenzy infecting most of the world?
World Cup is pushing soccer into the U.S. TV landscape like never before
Skeptical of soccer's American appeal? Just look at the World Cup's TV ratings

Move over, baseball and basketball. Soccer is ready to score as America's next major TV sport.

Ratings for some World Cup games in Brazil are already surpassing those for the NBA Finals and the World Series, driven by avid viewing among Latinos and young adults who spent countless Saturdays playing in youth soccer leagues.

More than 25 million total viewers on ESPN, Spanish-language Univision and related mobile apps tuned in to Sunday's match between the U.S. and Portugal, according to Nielsen. It was the most-watched soccer game in U.S. history — and that record could topple Thursday with the American team taking on powerhouse Germany.

All this points to an America that has finally caught the futbol fever that infected the rest of the world long ago.

"There is absolutely no doubt that soccer is an ascendant sport," said Scott Guglielmino, ESPN's senior vice president of programming. "And much of that I believe is due to the shifting demographic in our country."

Indeed, a growing number of American viewers hail from Spanish-speaking countries, especially Mexico, where soccer has long been woven into the culture. Latinos made up 17% of the U.S. population in 2012, up from 10% 20 years ago, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Another factor is the spectacular rise over the past decades of American boys and girls who play soccer. During the 1970s, the U.S. Youth Soccer organization had just 100,000 registered players nationwide. Now there are more than 3 million registered players, according to Todd Roby, a spokesman for the Frisco, Texas-based organization.

"People who played it 20 years ago are now coaching it and having kids who then play it," Roby said. "You used to have dads that coached football or baseball. Today you've got dads that coach soccer teams, and that's a huge change."

Time zone considerations are also driving viewing this time around. Rio de Janeiro is just one hour ahead of New York, making it much easier for Americans to view the games live. By comparison, there was a six-hour time difference for the previous World Cup in South Africa, and an 11-hour time difference for the 2002 games in South Korea.

ESPN — which has broadcast World Cup games since the '80s — has also left little to chance in selling the games to viewers, including such touches as a six-part series profiling the U.S. team as it prepared for the games.

And as with all sporting events, big-screen, high-definition TVs are making the games more appealing to watch. This might be especially true in soccer, where the large field and constant action limits the ability of telecast directors to use close-ups and other techniques to add visual interest. Seventy-seven percent of U.S. households now have an HDTV, up from just one-third five years ago, according to Leichtman Research Group.

Although dwarfed by the NFL's Super Bowl audiences, World Cup viewership already beat those of some other recent major sporting ‎events, such as the NBA finals (15.5 million average viewers) and last fall's World Series (just under 15 million). Meanwhile the first game of the recent NHL finals drew 4.8 million viewers.

And the soccer ratings could even be a bit higher because many of the World Cup events happen du‎ring daytime, when many people watch at the office or in bars. Nielsen does not tabulate such "out-of-home" viewing because reliable numbers are extremely difficult to measure.

Still, some experts are skeptical that the hoopla surrounding the World Cup will be a tipping point for the sport in the U.S.

"I have the maximum number of fingers and toes, and I don't have nearly enough to count the times soccer purists have counted this, that or another event as The Event that will make soccer big-time," said Curt Smith, an author and sports broadcasting historian. "It never happens, and I don't think it will now."

The game's low scores and relatively slow pace especially when compared with the NFL make soccer seem dull to most Americans, Smith said.

Soccer is also hard for U.S. networks to embrace because it features two 45-minute halves of uninterrupted, commercial-free play, according to Andrew Billings, a professor at the University of Alabama who specializes in sports media.

What's more, the U.S. has yet to produce a transcendent star on the order of Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo — the highest-paid player in soccer history, — or Argentina's Lionel Messi.

"There's no question that soccer is trending upward in the United States," Billings said. But "there are many sports that are widely embraced when wrapped in the American flag, but then relegated to footnote status once that nationalized event is complete."

On the other hand, the World Cup has proven transformational before in America. The 1994 games — the only time the World Cup has taken place in the U.S. — has been credited with leading to the creation of Major League Soccer and broadening the appeal of the game.

That appeal is evident to the crowd glued to the games at the Fox and Hounds bar in Studio City. Mid-morning Tuesday, a couple dozen fans gathered to watch Uruguay take on Italy on nine TV screens mounted around the pub.

Hugo Smith sipped a Long Island iced tea as he watched the action.

"My dad was a coach and my mom was a soccer mom," said the 31-year-old who played soccer growing up in Rancho Cucamonga. "For fans, basically the turtle comes out of the shell during the World Cup."

Douglas Milton, who owns the bar, says he's seen soccer's popularity grow steadily since 2003. World Cup telecasts are becoming a major TV event, so much so that during Sunday's match against Portugal, the bar reached its 150-person capacity and had to turn away nearly twice that many.

"For an early morning U.S. match, I have to staff just like a Friday night: two bartenders, two servers, a bar back, full kitchen and full security detail," he added.

Before this summer, Jess Busterna, 32, hadn't paid much attention to soccer, even as a kid.

"It's the World Cup so I wanted to learn more," said Busterna at the Studio City bar. "People love to bandwagon, especially in America."

He's eager for the American match-up Thursday morning against perennial favorite Germany.

"Usually you've got your basketball, baseball and football, but it's nice to take a break and be part of something that the rest of the world really cares about," he said.

The World Cup fever may break when the games end in mid-July. But even experts who have been skeptical of soccer's American appeal agree that the tide is slowly turning for the sport stateside.

"If soccer were a stock, it would be a 'buy' without question," Billings said.

scott.collins@latimes.com madeline.o'leary@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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