Do Soaring World Cup Ratings Mark A Foothold For Soccer In U.S.?

Less than a week into the World Cup, television ratings for the tournament are soaring in the U.S., where the opening games have attracted record audiences. Could this be an indication that the sport is finally gaining traction in the U.S.? Brian Steinberg, the senior TV editor at Variety, offers his take.

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Every World Cup, we ask the same question in our editorial meeting - has soccer finally turned the corner and become mainstream here in the U.S.? Well, if you go by the television ratings, the answer this year is a definite maybe. And for more on this, we turn to Brian Steinberg. He's the senior TV editor at Variety and he's been tracking the ratings. Welcome to the program once again.

BRIAN STEINBERG: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: What numbers jump out at you in the first few days of the World Cup?

STEINBERG: Well, I think ESPN and Univision are both seeing pretty good numbers. I think it was 7 million plus, combined for both networks, for the first couple of days, which I think is quite good - 7 million now - in summertime, especially.

SIEGEL: And who's watching. Who's in that audience?

STEINBERG: Well, I think what's driving it these days is a growing Latino population that is really a second or third generation. They are upwardly mobile in society. You know, this is a favorite sport that's been handed down from generations. And it's once every four years. It is another version of the Olympics for some people, certainly.

SIEGEL: You mentioned the number 7 million - put that in some context for us. Just the past few days, we've seen the NBA finals wrap up, also the Stanley Cup, the U.S. Open without Tiger Woods playing - how does 7 million figure for those sports?

STEINBERG: 7 million would be good for that. I think the Stanley Cup actually did a little bit less than that. Look, it's not the Super Bowl, certainly. That has a 110 million people watching that event. 7 million - look - I - talk about prime time entertainment, certainly, you know, "Modern Family" gets about 8 to 10 million people for a fresh episode. So this is summertime, where you're always down a little bit, certainly. But live sports tends to kind of draw a pretty big crowd. And 7 million for two networks, showing the same thing over a month long period, which is not like most sports events, which are one and done - it's a pretty big event and it is getting decent traction in the United States.

SIEGEL: What about advertising? The World Cup, obviously, is a lot cheaper to buy a 30 seconds or a minute for than the Super Bowl.

STEINBERG: Yes. I mean, - look, look - this is a month-long event. There are many ways to advertise. For example, Fusion - which is a kind of new cable network owned by ABC and Univision, as a matter fact - is doing a hour-long analysis show every night on prime time. So there's different ways to kind of - to get the audience, certainly. But yeah, this is a younger audience that watches soccer. It's a more global audience. There's definitely a reason to be attached to this event.

SIEGEL: But isn't there a problem for commercials - for advertisers in soccer - which is that there just aren't timeouts? You get before the game, you get halftime and you get after the game.

STEINBERG: That is a problem. And I think one of the reasons why soccer have may not taken off the United States is that it is a very European, South American sport and there's not this overwhelming flood of commercials - from minute to minute there's not a scoreboard sponsored by so-and-so or a cut-in brought to you by Subway. You know, you don't see Jared Fogle, the guy who lost weight at Subway, holding forks with the guys during halftime. So there are some definitely non-U.S. elements to this game that keep it a little more pristine.

SIEGEL: But the evening is still young, though. Who knows when we'll see Jared with the players of the world.

STEINBERG: I'm sure someone's talking about it as we speak.

SIEGEL: So if you had to put a lead on this so far, what you're seeing - a continued, steady climb for soccer, a breakthrough World Cup? What do you think we're looking at this year?

STEINBERG: I think it's definitely a steady climb. I think it's something to keep watching. I think it's emblematic of bigger shifts in the consumer audience. If you're an advertiser or a programmer you want to keep your eye on this because if you can find some way to harness it now, it might pay off for you later on.

SIEGEL: Brian Steinberg, thanks for talking with us.

STEINBERG: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Brian Steinberg is the senior TV editor for Variety.

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