The Meteoric Rise of the Other Football

World Cup Soccer Television Ratings vs US Sports NBA NHL MLB Landon Donovan

It’s easy to write off soccer in this country. We have our own “more exciting” sports that are built into our historical self-image, and the rise of soccer has been long predicted with little to show for it. That’s changing however, in the one metric that truly matters when comparing sports against each other in this country: television ratings.

Last month’s 2010 World Cup in South Africa showed that soccer is no longer a bit player on the sports stage in America. It has become a major sport, and is only increasing.

Take a look at the following graph, showing television ratings over the last 20 years for the biggest games across all the major sports (source: Nielsen and TV by the Numbers). The results may surprise you.

US Television Viewers in Millions World Series NBA Finals World Cup Olympics Stanley Cup

I had to leave out football, which dwarfs every other sport here. But overall you can see the fading of two historically “major” sports over the last two decades. Both the NBA and MLB have lost huge numbers of viewers. In basketball’s case, you might be able to attribute that to a weaker product. Baseball’s decline – by about 50% — could be related to their aging fan base. The median world series viewer is six years older than he was in 1991. Both sports need big name teams like the Yankees, Lakers, or Celtics in the championship to redeem their ratings.

In contrast to the decline of those two traditional American sports, look at the rise of soccer in the last decade. That jump is due to a number of factors. The masses of kids who played soccer as kids is growing up. The exposure to soccer on cable is greater than ever before. A better USA team to root for. And finally the huge influx of hispanic immigrants in recent years has brought millions of soccer fans to our nation — there are already more Mexican national team fans than there are NHL fans, by this measurement.

You can see that World Cup soccer already rivals, and in some cases surpasses, the NBA and MLB. Sure, maybe the MLS would be a more even comparison, but the league was only started in 1993. You could even argue that the soccer numbers are unfairly lower than they should be. Time zone problems that place games during the workday puts the World Cup at a distinct disadvantage against the other sports, which operate almost exclusively in prime time. If you subscribe to this theory, 2014’s World Cup in Brazil could be the most popular in America yet.

World Cup soccer now only sits behind only the olympics in popularity. Yet, in some ways, soccer has a higher ceiling. The olympics drama isn’t so much about the sports — most people have never swam, jumped hurdles, or ice skated competitively before. Soccer is a different story. It can provide the national pride as well as an engaging sport that people eventually follow even between World Cup years.

The bottom line is this: in a World Cup final that fielded two countries Americans care little about, in subprime television viewing time, garnered significantly more viewers than either the World Series, NBA Finals, or other events such as the Kentucky Derby.

Soccer has arrived.