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Scott D. Pierce: Hey, soccer haters — America loves the World Cup
Television » Ratings for the tournament — not just the U.S. games — are outstanding.
First Published Jun 24 2014 10:58 am • Last Updated Jul 15 2014 04:24 pm

If you’re a hater who argues that soccer is not an American sport, you might want rethink your position.

To be blunt, you probably ought to just shut up.

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Just look at the numbers from Saturday’s USA-Portugal match. ESPN averaged 18.2 million viewers for the telecast, peaking at almost 23 million. Univision averaged 6.5 million viewers for its Spanish-language telecast. WatchESPN averaged another 490,000 viewers.

So we’re talking more than 25 million viewers — and none of those measurements includes fans who were watching at bars or watch parties.

The numbers are also good locally. The Salt Lake TV market (which includes all of Utah and parts of Idaho, Wyoming and Nevada) averaged an 8.4 rating for the USA-Portugal match; the national average was a 9.6). We averaged a 6.5 rating for the USA-Ghana match; the national average was a 6.3.

To put the 25 million-plus total audience on Sunday in perspective, the most-watched show in prime-time that night was seen by 8 million viewers. The top five prime-time shows combined drew approximately 2 million fewer viewers than USA-Portugal.

To put it in further perspective, the just-completed NBA Finals averaged 15.5 million viewers. The series peaked with 17.9 million viewers for Game 5, when San Antonio claimed the title.

While there are certainly hoops-haters out there, you don’t hear them arguing that basketball is a sport that Americans just don’t like. That’s it’s boring. That it should just go back where it came from. (Massachusetts.)

You hear that sort of thing from soccer haters all the time.

Nobody is arguing that soccer is "better" than basketball. But the argument that Americans don’t care about soccer is clearly wrong.

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No, not every soccer game draws the same interest as the USA-Portugal match, which was the most-watched soccer match in American TV history. But through the first 32 matches of this year’s World Cup, ESPN has averaged 4.3 million viewers (up 50 percent over 2010 and 109 percent over 2006). Add in Univision’s average of about 1.7 million we’re talking 6 million viewers per match.

To put that in perspective, the 2013-14 college football bowl games averaged 5.6 million viewers. And only one of those 35 games — the BCS championship game — averaged more viewers than Saturday’s USA-Portugal game. At 26 million, it was only about 4 percent more viewers.

And nobody argues that football isn’t an American and ought to go back where it came from. (Yale? European rugby?)

ESPN deserves a lot of credit for helping to build the interest in soccer. From the game coverage to the studio shows, the telecasts have been excellent.

Not perfect. Ian Darke remains the best soccer play-by-play guy there is, but not everyone is up to his standards.

And there are moments of unexpected entertainment. Watch the studio shows closely and see how many times Michael Ballack looks at Alexi Lalas like he’s an idiot.

But when you look at the ratings from the World Cup, it’s clear that soccer has arrived. Actually, it’s clear that soccer has been here for quite some time, it’s just that the soccer haters are blinded by emotion and out of touch with reality.

Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at spierce@sltrib.com; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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