What it all means: ESPN executive breaks down record ratings for World Cup

My latest Chicago Tribune examines the record ratings for the World Cup.

You also can access the column via my Twitter feed at @Sherman_Report.

From the column:


The TV in the restaurant’s bar had the Cubs game on Monday night. The owner, though, was completely oblivious to Jake Arrieta’s quest to throw a no-hitter against the Red Sox. His sporting mind was elsewhere.

“You watching the U.S. game tomorrow?” he said to a customer. “It should be something.”

That exchange wouldn’t have happened 12 years ago in Chicago, maybe not four years ago.

Clearly, this World Cup has been a watershed moment for soccer in the United States. Interest and awareness have been at an all-time high, delivering record ratings for ESPN.

ESPN hopes many of these new soccer fans will continue to tune in despite the elimination of the U.S. team.

Artie Bulgrin, ESPN’s senior vice president for global research and analytics, crunches the numbers for the network. It is his job to figure out what it all means not only for ESPN but also for soccer.

Here are a few items he is monitoring:

U.S. factor: ESPN would have hit the jackpot if the U.S. had beat Belgium, but the network and Spanish-language Univision more than cashed in with four tightly contested games featuring the Red, White and Blue. An estimated 21.59 million Americans tuned in to Tuesday’s game on ESPN and Univision, second only to 25.2 million for the U.S.-Portugal game.

To put it in perspective, the overall audience for those U.S. games was higher than any World Series or NBA Finals game, and comparable to the BCS title game. And Tuesday’s match occurred on a weekday afternoon. Imagine the numbers if it aired in prime time.

The entire scenario does beg the question of whether the World Cup has become the Olympics version of soccer for U.S. sports fans? Once every four years, Olympic figure skating and gymnastics pull in big numbers for NBC, then pretty much fade from view.

“There’s no question the World Cup is in a class by itself in terms of interest,” Bulgrin said.

Bulgrin, though, thinks a different dynamic is at work for soccer. He contends the momentum has been building with increased ratings for the Premier League and other international soccer telecasts in recent years.

It all came together for this year’s World Cup. Heading into the quarterfinals, ESPN is averaging a healthy 4.1 million viewers for all 56 matches, up 44 percent from 2010. Several non-U.S. games have done strong numbers.

“I think the ratings are where we had hoped they would be,” Bulgrin said. “What we’re seeing is a systematic increase from (the World Cup in) 2006 to 2010 to 2014 in viewing for international soccer. Clearly, the strength of the U.S. team helped out. However, you also have a lot of broad interest for many other teams. Americans are more familiar with many of the stars on the various teams.”



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