Nate On Sports: The World’s Biggest Sporting Event

Here’s a question for all of you out there: What is the most widely-viewed and followed sporting event in the world?

Now, this question obviously won’t have the same effect today as it would, say, six months ago.  I’m guessing anyone who reads this blog is a pretty active follower of sports, and probably knows that the 2010 FIFA World Cup gets underway this Friday.  And, consequently, since I’m addressing it now (and not six months in the past), it’s pretty easy to figure out that the answer to this question is, indeed, the World Cup.

Regardless, this answer would surprise a lot of casual sports fans in America.  I’m guessing that if I were to ask this question, even today – three days before the opening match – most Americans would probably give “the Olympics” as their answer.  And in America, that may very well be true.  The truth is, as any American knows, that soccer has not been able to establish a foothold (pun intended) in the American sports culture.  Anybody remember that the World Cup was on U.S. soil in 1994?  That was a new nugget of information for me, and I consider myself a pretty hardcore sports fan (granted, I was nine years old, but still.)  Does anybody know who the best MLS team is?  I don’t, and I really don’t care to know, to be brutally honest.  How did the whole David Beckham thing work out again?  With regards to the failure of soccer in the United States, I could go on and on and on.

But as far as the rest of the world is concerned, soccer (or should I say futbol) is king, and the World Cup is the king’s treasure.  There is nothing that unites the rest of the world quite like the game of soccer, and that very notion is part of the reason the World Cup is so much fun to watch.  The effect of the World Cup is quite like that of the Olympics – professional rivalries are buried for a short time (in this case, one month) and the outpouring of national pride is more contagious than the European debt crisis.  For the rest of the world, this is the once-every-four-years event that is circled on the calendar, not the Olympics.  Every one of these games for a participating country is a Super Bowl.

Now, by this point, some of you could probably accuse me of exaggerating to an extent.  With that in mind, here are some stats to back all of this up:

-The cumulative audience of the 2006 World Cup, played on German soil, was estimated to have been 26.29 billion viewers.  The final match alone, won by Italy over France, was estimated to have 715.1 million viewers.   That’s nearly two and a half times the entire population of the United States.

-By comparison, an estimated 4.7 billion cumulative viewers were thought to have turned into the 2008 Summer Olympics.  Even if you double that to make the air time similar, that’s still nearly 17 million fewer viewers.  And these were considered to be a very successful Olympics from a ratings perspective.  For further comparison, the recent 2010 Winter Olympics drew 3.0 billion cumulative viewers in a best-case estimate.

-ESPN, who has the rights to the 2010 and 2014 World Cup, shelled out $100 million for the rights to show the event.  That’s $50 million a year, and nearly $2 million a day to broadcast the Cup.

-World Cup sponsor, FIFA, raised 1.9 billion euros in marketing revenue and 700 million euros from sponsorship in the 2006 World Cup.

As these stats show, the World Cup is 1.) a huge deal to the world population as a whole and 2.) a cash cow (a direct result of it being a huge deal.)  ESPN, as shown, is investing a huge sum into the World Cup.  In addition to the $100 million paid out for broadcast rights, the network has also made huge commitments to ensure that their coverage is top-notch: the network, among other things, has staffed 300 people at what has been called a “massive compound” in Johannesburg, South Africa (the sight of the 2010 Cup) and plans to air more than 230 hours of live programming.

Worldwide ratings are going to be massive, there’s no question about it.  Projecting American television ratings, however, isn’t quite as straight-forward.  Already, we’ve documented the difficulties of soccer in its effort to become a “mainstream sport” in America.  That’s not going to change overnight.  ESPN has admittedly done their part in hyping the hell out of this, which theoretically should result in more interest from the casual fan.  It is more than likely, however, that U.S. television rating success or failure will depend squarely on the fate of the U.S. squad.

It’s no secret: Americans are bandwagoners.  You don’t have to look back any more than four months for a reminder of that.  Remember the U.S. hockey team?  Although hockey is making a bit of a comeback, America still, by and large, doesn’t care about it.  But they had a team they could get behind, and the end result was a massive 27 million viewers for the final versus Canada – the highest for a hockey game since the “Miracle on Ice” in 1980.  I’ll fully admit that I was a bandwagoner there too.  I envision a similar situation evolving if the U.S. soccer team is successful in the World Cup.  Given their draw, it’s hard to envision them not making it to the knockout round, which should at least stimulate some level of interest among the casual fan, and some level of success as it pertains to U.S. television ratings.

Who knows?  A deep U.S. run in the World Cup could also give soccer the kick-start (once again, pun intended) that it needs to become a mainstream sport in the U.S.A.  Regardless if that happens or not, soccer is truly the world’s sport, and the World Cup is the world’s biggest sporting event.  Enjoy it.  I know I will.

3 thoughts on “Nate On Sports: The World’s Biggest Sporting Event

  1. Milo, thanks for the feedback.

    I could not agree with you more re: your statement that soccer is the “sleeping giant” of American sports. I had kind of thought it probably had the greatest growth potential of any sport, and your stats about the AYSO seem to back that up.

    What it needs, however (and I think you would agree with me on this), is something to really give it the “jolt” it needs to really get going and sustain itself. The best example I can currently think of in modern times is the jolt that Tiger Woods gave golf, and the interest and enthusiasm he sparked among the youth of America. Golf was suddenly a lot cooler than it used to be, in other words.

    Your Los Angeles Galaxy took it upon themselves to try it with Beckham. And while it did generate a lot of immediate interest, it wasn’t sustainable in any shape or form (and I think Beckham is mostly to blame for that.)

    A deep World Cup run by the U.S., I believe, would be the best thing that could possibly happen to soccer in this country. I think that, unlike Beckham, any momentum gained from that could actually be sustainable. And, love or hate ESPN, all the soccer exposure that’s coming our way right now (and will continue to come our way for the next month) can only be a good thing. People will remember and recall it, and that’s the essential first step.

  2. This American actually does remember the World Cup of 1994. In fact that is what first really got me started into a life long fandom of the greatest game on Earth. It them lead to my support of MLS, which under the FIFA rules, had to be in existence for the US to hold the Cuo in 1994. See, only countries with a professional soccer league can host the cup, so even though MLS didn’t officially start till 1996, two years later, it was in the forming stages in 1994 which was good enough for FIFA.

    Nay Sayers here in the States will say that soccer will never catch on. Consider this, the AYSO (American Youth Soccer Organization) comprises over 50,000 teams and 650,000 players. Major League Soccer will have 20 teams by 2012 with 11 of those teams having their own, soccer specific stadiums by 2011, with two more working on trying to add two more to that list. While the league has had a few set backs since 2004 in profitability, the numbers are starting to move up, with two teams, FC Dallas and Los Angeles Galaxy, already making a profit each season while the other teams are prime to join them on that list. The whole MLS over all is actually doing better in many areas then the NHL is, with further possibilities on the horizon.

    Just ten years ago even, soccer wasn’t as profitable, or popular in the States as it is today, with major growth each decade. Think of it as the sleeping giant of American sports. As the US Nation Team gains more respect both internationally and abroad, the old ways of thinking about the greatest game on Earth here in the States are changing, slowly, but still moving forward. The 2010 World Cup can only move it along faster!

    By the way, the most recent MLS Champ was ReAL Salt Lake, but historically, the best team is the Los Angeles Galaxy, my team! :D

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