USA v. England TV Ratings Not Too Shabby – At Least It’s Not Hockey

UPDATE: The tragic, gut-wrenching USA loss against Ghana on Saturday removed the suspense by getting more than 19 million viewers between ABC and Univision, making it the most watched soccer game in U.S. history. The 1999 women’s World Cup final is still the most watched game on an English-language telecast, for whatever that is worth, but expect that mark to fall as well unless the final game is Uruguay v. Chile.


I am breaking a promise that our next post would move away from the World Cup to note some interesting figures in the TV ratings for the USA v. England game on June 12. You may recall the Beverage wrote in May that U.S. TV ratings for the last World Cup final in 2006 were functionally equal to the contemporaneous World Series and NBA Finals.  I’ve since had the opportunity to discuss this fact in person with a few folks, and people either don’t get it (they think we’re talking about worldwide television audience) or don’t believe it (somehow the numbers are wrong).  So I thought it would be fun to do a quick update with new data from the past couple of weeks.

The NBA has made much this week of the very high TV ratings that Game 7 of the NBA Finals between the Lakers and the Celtics produced.  Nielsen says that 28-odd million folks tuned in to see Kobe and Paul Pierce do their best impersonation of Russell/Wilt and Bird/Magic, which makes it the highest rated NBA game since the final game of Jordan’s career (oh wait, what’s that you say, he kept playing?)…what should have been the final game of Jordan’s career when he dragged the Bulls to their sixth championship over the Stockton/Malone Jazz.

NBA ratings certainly have improved since the work stoppage in the late 1990s, but, like everything, they will never come close to the aggregate numbers generated in the fogs of pre-history when there was no cable or internet.  If the Abominable Snowman, Jordan and the ghost of Pistol Pete showed up to play in the NBA finals next year (like on my old PS2 game that I played instead of studying for the bar exam) they still wouldn’t get the 38 million who tuned in to see that final salient game of the short-shorts era.

But 28 million is a really high number, even historically speaking.  It is double the 14 million fans who tuned in for Game 1 of the this year’s Finals and significantly more than the 22 million who turned up to watch the last Finals Game 7 between the Spurs and Pistons in 2005.

So how did USA v. England do against that backdrop?  Combining ABC and Univision numbers, the game got about 16.8 million viewers. That is a considerably smaller audience than the historic NBA Finals Game 7 the following week, but Game 5 held the next day – with the series tied 2-2 and heading back to L.A. – got only about 15 million viewers. The fact is, the USA v. England game got better TV ratings than any of the first five NBA Finals games.

What about the Stanley Cup? Don’t ask. There was much optimism for NHL viewership after people got excited for the USA v. Canada Olympic hockey, and the final game of the playoffs did get the best TV ratings the NHL has enjoyed in my lifetime. Nevertheless, the Stanley Cup finals failed to beat the spelling bee in TV ratings. Remember, this is a Stanley Cup between Philadelphia and Chicago. If it can’t draw U.S. eyeballs, no professional hockey can. But only 8 million folks watched the Game 6 Cup clincher, less than half of the audience for USA v. England. Hell, the Mexico v. South Africa game that opened the World Cup at 10 o’clock EDT on a Friday morning got 5.3 million U.S. viewers on Univision, which the NHL would have counted as a fantastically successful hockey telecast.

When the World Cup final is played next month, I predict that it will easily be the most watched television soccer game in U.S. history, eclipsing the 18 million or so who saw the 91ers beat China in the 1999 women’s World Cup final. To put this in perspective, there almost certainly won’t be anything else on broadcast television this decade that eclipses historic TV ratings from the 70s, 80s and 90s. Just look at the NBA Finals example above. All of the all-time highest rated sporting events, sitcoms, presidential speeches and everything else (with the lone exception of the 2008 Super Bowl) date from a bygone era before cable and the internet. Soccer may be the only legitimate growth property on American sports television. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mr. Nobody-Watches-Soccer-Anyway-Because-It-Is-So-Boring guy.


5 Responses to “USA v. England TV Ratings Not Too Shabby – At Least It’s Not Hockey”

  1. 1 Michael Paul June 22, 2010 at 4:07 pm

    Could you clarify the relative Univision vs. ABC #’s? In otherwords, how much of the continued perception that no one watches soccer is ethnocentric?

  2. 2 The Beverage June 22, 2010 at 4:11 pm

    Yes, good point Michael P. It is about 14 million for ABC and about 3.8 million for Univision, according to the latest figures. In anecdotal news, I heard on the radio that the local sports bar here had to turn folks away for the England game because they lacked sufficient waitstaff. Those were native English speakers being turned away.

  3. 3 am i the ice in your beverage June 22, 2010 at 4:14 pm

    also worth noting that usa v. england was at 2 in the afternoon eastern time while game 7 of the NBA finals was on at 9pm eastern. if the usa v. england match had been in primetime, its total # of viewers would have been much higher (more potential eyeballs = more actual eyeballs). i have to think that the soccer match’s “share” was higher than the nba game’s share but i have not researched it.

  4. 4 When are you coming to CA? June 24, 2010 at 1:42 pm

    We’re randomly getting some World Cup broadcasts from Al Jazeera and other non-Spanish international stations. Super-fun watching WC in Korean, Dutch, and Arabic.

    Or perhaps this just means that our satellite TV package is like 30% of our gross income.

    • 5 The Beverage June 24, 2010 at 1:48 pm

      when they move it closer to Texas…

      You can pick your broadcast language on ESPN3, and I watched some of the afternoon games yesterday in Portuguese. James Taylor was right…it really does make everything sound very smooth. Much better than French…same panache without the arrogant sounding conspicuous precision.

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