PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- It's still a fairly new occurrence in the United States, but a whole lot of sports fans here watch the World Cup.
ESPN and ABC had some idea people would watch when they paid $100 million for the English-language broadcast rights to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and this year's installment in Brazil. Fox was far more aware of the World Cup's potential by 2011, when it paid $400 million for those same English-language U.S. rights for the 2018 and 2002 World Cup.
It's about to get a whole lot more lucrative, too. According to Nielsen's 2013 Year In Sports Media report, 40% of the scant television audience for Major League Soccer consisted of viewers 35 and younger. That's a younger following than that of the National Football League (which has 29% that young), college football and basketball (26% and 29% respectively) or Major League Baseball (24%, with a whopping 50% of its audience aged 55 or over).
Also, when it comes to drawing viewers from the growing Hispanic population in the U.S., nothing comes close to MLS. A solid 34% of its viewers are Hispanic, compared with 9% for Major League Baseball, 8% for football and a scant 4% each for March Madness and college bowl games.
World Cup viewership here just keeps climbing as well. The ratings share never got larget than the 9.5% who watched the U.S.-hosted World Cup in 1994, but the 18.1 million who watched then were a cozy little collective compared with the average of 24.3 million U.S. viewers who watched the matches from South Africa in 2010.
That's what ESPN and Fox are paying for: The untapped potential of that growing audience and the pool of ad dollars from World Cup partners such as Coca-Cola, Sony and Visa and U.S. Men's National Team backers including Nike, AT&T and General Motors. Are there any actual numbers to back up that hope? You bet. The following are the Top 5 most-watched World Cup matches in U.S. history. All took place within the past 20 years and all show just what's possible when you don't vastly underestimate your audience: