When NBC covers an Olympics, it’s largely about the American team. When ESPN covers the World Cup, it’s about every team.
Clearly, part of that is because Americans do better at the Olympics. The best finish in World Cup play for the U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT) was third — in 1930.
And ESPN isn’t expecting any miracles in 2014.
"The U.S. team has done quite well," said Jed Drake, ESPN’s senior vice president and executive producer of event production. "We are excited about how far they will go. Though, for those of you that follow this as closely as we do, you know that they are in a very challenging group."
That’s an understatement. The USMNT, ranked 13th in the world, is in this World Cup’s Group of Death with No. 2 Germany and No. 4 Portugal. Ghana is ranked 37th, but has eliminated Team USA from the last two World Cup competitions. It’s the only group in which all four teams made it to the knockout round in 2010.
"I think it would be one of the harder groups that the U.S. has ever gotten," said ESPN soccer analyst Alexi Lalas. "Unlike other sports where, for the most part, the U.S. is an elite team — in soccer, it’s not. And the U.S. for many, many years, even back when I was playing, played the role of the underdog very, very well."
Lalas did not predict the USMNT will be one of two to emerge from its group. But he doesn’t count Team USA out.
"If I had to go to Vegas right now with my money, I wouldn’t put it on them coming out," he said. "If I had to go with your money, I would put it on them coming out."
Drake, however, said ESPN doesn’t make any plans based on the USMNT going deep into the tournament. Or even on the Americans getting out of their group.
"We televise this event as a broad scope, which is different than in some other countries," he said. "In England, they are going to hang their hat on England. When they are out, it’s going to be like the end of the world.
"Our viewers in this country have secondary teams, have tertiary teams, and that’s part of the fun of this thing. If the U.S. does get knocked out, then so be it. On we go. Our ratings didn’t dip that much [in 2010] after the round of 16, believe it or not."
The 2010 final — Spain beat the Netherlands 1-0 in stoppage time — drew 24.3 million viewers on ABC and Univision, making it the most-watched soccer game ever in the United States. No. 3 on that list was the U.S.-Ghana game 15 days earlier, which drew 19.4 million viewers.
(ESPN research showed that if you added out-of-home and mobile-device viewing, those numbers would increase by as much as 17 percent.)
No, those aren’t Super Bowl numbers. The Super Bowl attracted 111.5 million viewers in February.
But it’s more than some more traditional "American" sports. The 2014 NCAA men’s basketball tournament final averaged 21.2 million viewers; the 2013 NBA Finals averaged 17.8 million; the 2013 World Series averaged 10.5 million; the 2013 Stanley Cup Finals averaged 5.76 million.
If, by some combination of miracles, the USMNT were to make the World Cup final, the TV ratings would be through the roof. In 1999, the USA-China final in the Women’s World Cup drew 17,975,000 viewers.
But don’t hold your breath waiting for the USMNT to make the final. Just pick a secondary team to root for and enjoy the tournament.
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