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The Thrill of Victory

First, thanks to everyone for all of the positive feedback on the blog. This week has already broken all previous traffic records for the Beverage (a fairly low bar), and we are grateful for the readers and the kind words. But the traffic spike here is apparently part of a much larger trend for World Cup-related stuff on the internet.

In our last post we discussed the impact of the internet and cable on television ratings generally and sporting events in particular, noting the unremarkable premise that more entertainment options beget smaller audiences for individual programs. But one clever reader pointed out that the Beverage was ignoring in this analysis people actually watching the game on the internet.

And it turns out that the mid-morning EDT starts are causing this World Cup to break new cyber ground. If one can decipher the graphic below, it apparently indicates that the moments following Landon’s game winner against Algeria yesterday morning produced the second-largest internet traffic spike ever. Really.

Now it is all clear, isn't it?

Last Friday’s USA v. Slovenia game was ESPN’s highest rated soccer program ever, with more than 5 million TV viewers, but almost 1 million additional viewers watched the game on the internet through ESPN3. (Worth noting again that the 1 million internet viewers ESPN got for weekday morning soccer would count as a very successful prime-time hockey telecast.) Similar things are also happening at Univision, where online traffic is at an all-time high. Anecdotally, someone shared with me an office email imploring employees to please go to the comfortable conference rooms and use the large flat-screen TVs to watch the game because streaming video was crushing the network. Sound like March Madness?

The Beverage is not a huge fan of Malcolm Gladwell (he keeps writing the same article over-and-over again for the New Yorker – briefly summarized, “It is hard to think of new stuff because people have been thinking for a long time and they’ve already thought of most of the good stuff.”), but one does get a sense that this World Cup has achieved some sort of tipping point for U.S. soccer interest.  It will certainly fade after the World Cup ends, but it may end up like figure skating, a sport about which people apparently care a great deal…but only for two weeks every four years.

As for Wednesday morning’s game itself, before it fades too far into the recesses of my already taxed memory I’ll give some quick impressions:

Stirring, stirring stuff. If you can’t get excited about that, you don’t really like sports. You just like beer and chicken wings and cheerleaders and have been confused all these years by their cohabitation with football.

Most impressive was the utter BELIEF that was clearly evident in the team, both against Algeria and last week against Slovenia. If you’ve not watched soccer much before, it is important to recognize that comebacks and last-second winners like we produced in the last two games just don’t happen very much at all.

If we hadn’t had the last goal against Slovenia disallowed, it would have been the first time that any team had ever come back from down 2-0 at halftime to win a World Cup game. As it was, even the tie we earned represented an historic comeback, only the fifth time any team has come back to tie a World Cup game when trailing 2-0 at halftime. And the winner scored in injury time yesterday? Only the fourth such goal scored in the last four World Cups.

So this is all to make the point that we were facing very, very long odds as both of these games wore into the second half. But you never saw it in the faces of Bob Bradley’s team. Late on in the game yesterday morning – when I’ll confess that deep in my heart I might have already given up hope – the lads were still charging boldly forward at every chance. Unlike, it is worth noting, our opponents, who looked lackadaisical enough to prompt the match commentators to wonder aloud why they weren’t trying to score and leading some to suspect that they might have been playing for a 0-0 draw and the honor of having sent the Evil Empire packing (The Beverage does not endorse this view).

Belief is a powerful thing, and the dysfunctional events of the past couple of weeks in the England and France camps show us that “team” matters in soccer. As our squad was waiting in line to come out of the tunnel yesterday morning, Half-n-Half pointed out that Clint Dempsey was gently resting his forehead against Jozy Altidore’s back. Nothing much, but just a casual reflection of the real spirit that exists among Bradley’s charges.

These guys like each other. They like what they are doing. They are not, like some in the England camp, pining away the hours until they’ll get to return to their rockstar lives and shiny “TV presenter” wives and girlfriends.

And now we all like them too. Unlike some bitter souls, I am happy to welcome the rest of America to the party. Pull up a chair. Stay a while. This could get interesting.

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.

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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.

Don’t Cry for Me Mr. Coulibaly

The U.S. has finished its first two of three group stage games at the World Cup, and, despite an air of disappointment about the side after Friday’s events, we control our own destiny to advance to the next round. We knew going in that we would likely need a win against Algeria or Slovenia to move forward to the knockout stage, and three points taken from the scrappy Frenchmen (I mean Algerians) on Wednesday will get the job done.

If we don’t win, the scenarios get more complicated and perhaps require math or a Friday Night Lights-style coin flip. The Christian Science Monitor has the most cogent explanation. As unlikely as it may be, the idea of a coin flip to decide whether England or the U.S. advances in the World Cup is such a juicy proposition that it is hard to entirely ignore. But the fact is, unless England win, a draw likely puts us through as well.

Will England win? You don’t see it happening if they play like they have for two matches and Slovenia comes out looking only for the single point they need to advance. But there is certainly enough English quality for them to turn the tide, and it will be interesting to see if the wizard Fabio Cappello (the Phil Jackson of world football) can break through whatever mental fog has been holding his squad back.

So why the air of disappointment in the U.S. camp given this optimistic scenario?  Because we got hosed on Friday.  We went from agony, to ecstasy, to super-ecstasy to “Huh?”.

"Pardon me, sir. Could I have a word, please?"

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So who are these guys anyway?

Meet Ricardo Clark.  You may have never heard of him, but he is the face of U.S. soccer.

"Hi there. I'm Ricardo Clark."

But before we get to Clark – and why he is the typical American soccer player for the new century – we need to indulge in a jaunt through recent history.  In the early 1990s, U.S. Soccer faced a problem.   Click for more…

U.S. Soccer Still Can’t Quite Hang with the Cool Kids?

The U.S. will take on Turkey this afternoon in the second to last World Cup tune-up game, the final roster is now set, and the new FIFA world rankings are out.  Except for some reshuffling in the top 4, not much is materially changed from the last FIFA ranking, and the U.S. still sits at 14.

White House send off for the lads!

These FIFA ratings have been much maligned, especially when the U.S. somehow rose as high as fifth in the final rankings before the 2006 World Cup.  But a funny little thing happened in the latest iteration.  Croatia switched spots with France and fell to 10th, leaving the following as the world’s top 9 teams heading to South Africa:

Click here to keep reading the list

5 Simple Rule Changes to Save the World Cup

As we continue to count down to the kick off of World Cup 2010 in South Africa, we should expect to be treated in the coming weeks to different versions of the obligatory everybody-righteously-hates-soccer-in-real-america story.  Here is a pretty good example from the 2006 iteration (I think from Youngstown, Ohio, but it is not obvious precisely what “valley” they are the voice of).

But there really is no body of evidence you can look to (other than, apparently, trolling bars in Youngstown) and conclude that the World Cup has enjoyed anything other than a meteoric rise in popularity as a spectator sport in this country since 1990 (when the US first qualified for the modern era World Cup).

The 2006 World Cup final game got US television ratings functionally equal to those of the contemporaneous NBA Finals, NCAA Final Four and MLB World Series, each with roughly 16-17 million viewers.  Don’t even talk about the NHL.  The highest-rated 2010 NHL playoff games in any given week get about half as many US TV viewers (500K) as a random Sweeden v. Spain game in Euro 2008 (800K).

The fact is that World Cup games this summer will simply dwarf the ratings of all regular season professional sports in the US except NFL football.  Somebody is watching, and many of those somebodies don’t routinely watch any other soccer.

Which brings me to the real point of this post…World Cup soccer is to normal soccer as NBA playoff basketball is to regular basketball.  It is not really the same game.  The players are so good, the stakes are so high and the lights are so bright that the game takes on a different character.

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iPad Update – Where we learn if optimism be virtue or vice

Two weeks ago I wrote of how boundless optimism and a bit of research was helping me avoid worrying about the 10 most common iPad complaints and make the deal.  I promised to post an update on whether my optimism was misguided.

Before addressing each of the 10 iPad complaints and whether they proved valid or significant, I’ll say as a general matter that my optimism has been handsomely rewarded.  The iPad is a great device.  Simply put, I knew within about an hour that I’d need to get another one for The Beverage’s better half (mother’s day provided the perfect opportunity).

The iPad does not lack for people extolling its virtues, so I won’t linger here over the more common “wow” experiences on which others have reported at length.  What I’ve not seen discussed much is how good the email client is.

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