If the skyrocketing American viewership for the 2014 FIFA World Cup is to be believed, then soccer really is the new football. Of course, it’s already the old football in the rest of the world, so we’re not sure what that means for the NFL. But either way, there’s no denying that the media hype, social media chatter and interest in this year’s championship series has reached a feverish new level in a country that's notoriously frosty toward the sport. “We are seeing highly encouraging growth and interest in markets such as the United States and Australia,” FIFA said in a recent statement.
Viewership and media interest has far outpaced that of the previous World Cup, held four years ago in South Africa. In fact, Sunday’s tense 2-2 match between team USA and Portugal was the most-watched soccer match in U.S history. All this for a sport dubbed the “world’s most boring game” in 1994 by the veteran sports journalist Allen Barra.
So what gives? Is soccer just less boring than it was two decades ago, or have Americans finally come around to what's by far the most popular sport in the rest of the world? There are several possible answers -- some more nuanced than others -- all coalescing to achieve critical mass for World Cup fever in the U.S.
The Twitter Effect
Let’s start with all those World Cup-related tweets. (Lookup #goooal for further reference.) For the past two years or so, there has been some debate among media insiders about the extent to which social media chatter really affects television ratings. No one denies that tweets and status updates correlate with popular television events. (Super Bowls and Oscar telecasts typically dominate the topics of Twitter’s trending sidebar as they air.) But correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation, and critics contend that social media activity merely reflects people’s interest in shows they’re already watching.
Count Alan Wurtzel, NBCUniversal’s head of research, among the skeptics. Earlier this year, he told the Financial Times that, after studying the social media activity around NBC’s Winter Olympics programming, he found that TV ratings weren't likely to increase when more people tweeted about TV events. “I am saying the emperor wears no clothes,” he said in a much-aggregated comment.
The Nielsen Company disagrees, however. According to a study it commissioned in 2013, Twitter chatter doesn’t just correlate with TV viewership -- it influences it. Sure, people tweet about what they’re watching on TV, but the relationship works both ways. People reading those tweets might be interested enough to tune in to see what the fuss is about. “[A] spike in TV ratings can increase the volume of tweets, and, conversely, a spike in tweets can increase tune-in,” Paul Donato, Nielsen’s chief research officer, said in a statement at the time. Looks like he was on to something.
If technology is the answer to all our problems (as Silicon Valley would like us to believe), then chalk up “watching soccer without a television set” as one more problem it has solved. Internet streaming is a booming industry compared to what it was four years ago, and U.S. soccer fans have more options for enjoying live streams of the games on their computers and mobile devices. According to ESPN, nearly half a million people streamed Sunday’s game alone. And American viewers can also stream the games via BBC Sport, ITV or the Spanish-language Univision. “This will be the biggest, broadest and most high-tech World Cup coverage ever," Juan Carlos Rodriguez, president of Univision Deportes, told Variety.
Hot Soccer Players
The myriad of listicles featuring the “Hottest World Cup Players” has invited some interesting analysis on gender politics and whether the objectification of male athletes adds a fitting balance to an American media typically glutton with straight-male fantasies. Either way, it’s hard to imagine all those memes featuring Cristiano Ronaldo running around shirtless have hurt ratings. BuzzFeed has a comprehensive roundup of the hottest of the hot here.
Expanding Latin American Population
Homegrown soccer may be a relatively recent development in the U.S., but elsewhere in the world -- certainly in Central and South America -- even your great-grandfather likely grew up as a fan of the sport. And as the Latin American population has increased in the U.S., so has the enthusiasm for soccer. In 2012, the Hispanic population had grown to 53 million, which represented a 50 percent increase since 2000, and it continues to grow.
More Regular Season Soccer Fans
In 2013, NBC bought the rights to air all 380 English Premiere League matches -- the league of the Manchester United team, which launched the career and worldwide fame of David Beckham, the only soccer player most any American can identify. The 2014 World Cup is coming on the heels of the first full English Premiere League season to broadcast (with big ratings) on an American network, which has gone a long way to raising the profile of the game. And enthusiasm is contagious!
Higher Scores, More Action
The 2014 World Cup is poised to become the highest-scoring World Cup in more than 50 years, as the UK Telegraph reported last week. It’s unclear exactly why so many goals are being scored (it’s likely a combination of more per-team talent and a narrowing gap between the best and the worst countries), but the goals translate to on-the-field action, and that has viewers hooked. It’s been such a nail-biting championship this year that even some of the players are doing the biting.
Time Is On Our Side
This last point may seem obvious, but it’s worth a mention. The host country for this year’s World Cup is Brazil, which is much closer to the U.S. than 2010’s host, South Africa. Time zone-wise, Brazil is only about an hour ahead of the Eastern U.S., depending on the city. That’s compared to a six-hour difference between New York and Johannesburg. You mean we can finally watch soccer without a fistful of amphetamines? Sign us up.
Thursday’s World Cup match between the U.S. and Germany begins at 12 p.m. on ESPN. Here’s how to skip work and watch it.