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FIFA World Cup Still a Huge Draw Without U.S. Team

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Now that the U.S. has lost to its hated nemesis Belgium despite goalkeeper Tim Howard doing everything short of building a wall in front of the net, U.S. viewers are done with the World Cup, right?

No, and this year's surge in interest has little to do with it -- but doesn't hurt.

ESPN, owned as a joint venture between Disney (DIS - Get Report) and Hearst, averaged 3.54 million viewers through the first 48 matches of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, up 46% from the 2010 World Cup and more than double the audience for the early rounds in 2006. Univision, meanwhile, averaged a network-best 2.9 million viewers for each of those same 48 matches. The U.S. men's national team, meanwhile, averaged nearly 18.3 million on ESPN and Univision combined for its three opening-round matches, with the 24.7 million audience for its match against Portugal making it the most-watched opening-round World Cup match in U.S. history. Aided by a 0-0 draw through regulation, the heroics of Howard and a late goal by 19-year-old Julian Green, even the U.S. loss to Belgium in the Round of 16 drew 16.5 million viewers to ESPN alone and 21.6 million to ESPN and Univision combined. Throw in ESPN and Univision's digital audiences and that viewership soars to 28.2 million, which would be the largest viewership for soccer in U.S. television history.

As ESPN, Univision and ABC have discovered, however, their combined $425 million investment in the U.S. broadcast rights for the 2010 and 2014 World Cup have paid dividends far beyond what the U.S. men's national team could produce. Until this year, the most-watched World Cup match in U.S. history was the 2010 World Cup final between Spain and The Netherlands on ABC and Univision. That combined television audience was the largest ever for a U.S. soccer broadcast and easily overshadowed the 19.4 million who watched the Round of 16 matchup between the U.S. and Ghana that year -- which was the most-watched U.S. national team match to that point.

It was a viewership so large that it outperformed ABC's broadcast Ohio State/Oregon Rose Bowl (24.04 million) that year. It also outdrew the 2010 men's college basketball national championship game between Duke and Butler (23.99 million) on CBS (CBS - Get Report), the Winter Olympics closing ceremony on NBC (21.4 million) and a whole lot of prime-time Winter Olympics coverage including the he U.S./Canada men's hockey gold medal game on NBC (18.3 million). It was an audience 10 million viewers larger than that year's average viewership for Major League Baseball's World Series (14.3 million) and easily larger than the average draw for both the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League finals.

That's a huge number, but it isn't unprecedented. As early as the U.S.-hosted World Cup in 1994, 18.1 million viewers tuned in to watch the final matchup between Brazil and Italy. At the time, that was still a smaller audience than the average for the 1993 World Series (24.7 million), but it was still unprecedented for soccer. The 17 million U.S. viewers who tuned in for 2006 World Cup final between Italy and France didn't set any records, but they were the first U.S. World Cup audience to outdraw the World Series average. That year's matchup between the St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers pulled in only 15.8 million viewers, on average.

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