JOHANNESBURG (TheStreet) -- Landon Donovan's heroics made clear to advertisers and U.S. soccer dilettantes alike what the rest of the world already knew: Tomorrow's knockout game against Ghana is a big deal.
The stereotypical view of Americans' relationship with soccer is one of willful ignorance: A sporting public that calls the world's game "boring" despite enduring four-hour contests of groin scratching, pitch-taking and seventh-inning stretching each summer. The latest World Cup flipped that notion on its head, with Nielsen noting that the Yanks' opening match against England on June 12 drew 17.6 million viewers, almost double the 9.8 million garnered by the U.S.-Italy match that was the most-watched contest of the U.S. team's disappointing 2006 World Cup campaign.
The U.S. has averaged 11.1 million viewers over its first three World Cup appearances, a dramatic improvement over its 6.6 million average over the same span four years ago. Univision and
ESPN and ABC should be pleased, as their combined $425 million investment ($100 million for ESPN/ABC, $325 million for Univision) in World Cup broadcast rights for 2010 and 2014 is paying early dividends, as should U.S. team backers like
. It's the geographical and cultural breadth of that audience, however, that should please World Cup partners and U.S. Soccer's financial backers most.
When Donovan scored in the 91st minute against Algeria to put the U.S. ahead and eventually send them through to the knockout stages, there was a natural outpouring in enclaves like Kearny, N.J., where Scottish, Portuguese and Brazilian populations for generations fostered a soccer culture that produced former U.S. team members like Claudio Reyna, Tony Meola, Tab Ramos and ESPN World Cup announcer John Harkes:
However, progress is measured in the soccer-quiet corners of America like Bentonville, Ark. The land of
and the Razorbacks where one would expect bedlam after a Southeastern Conference title game, but not this reaction for a game against Algeria:
There have been bigger on-field moments in U.S. soccer history: The 1-0 CONACAF Gold Cup win over Brazil, the 2002 World Cup Round-of-16 shutout win over Mexico (a then runt-of-the-litter Donovan scored then, too), the 3-2 qualifying win over Portugal that preceded it, last year's 2-0 Confederations Cup win against Spain. Few of them were played out on fans' workplace desktops or smartphones and none of them reached an audience as broad as the one the U.S. has enjoyed during this World Cup.
A deep World Cup run translates to more viewership and revenue, but, like fans, sponsors realize that gravy train can derail as early as tomorrow. Ghana has a slightly worse group-play record than the U.S. (1-1-1 to 1-2-0) while allowing fewer goals (2 to the Yanks' 3) against tougher competition (Serbia and Germany).
When the U.S. and Ghana last met during the 2006 World Cup, the Black Stars sent the U.S. packing 2-1. Some of Ghana's heroes from that match are gone -- game-winning scorer Haminu Dramani and injured midfielder Michael Essien -- while holdovers like 2006 scorer Steve Appiah have seen their roles reduced. However, captain John Mensah remains and again commands an attack-focused squad featuring the frighteningly quick Asamoah Gyan, who has taken more than a third of Ghana's shots on goal and scored both of the team's goals in this tournament.
Regardless of the outcome, though, U.S. Soccer and its backers will come out of this World Cup ahead. They've stared down the Three Lions of England, overcome a stolen goal against Slovenia and made a nation of naysayers don soccer jerseys and start chants in the middle of baseball season. When your sport and its heroes cause Lincoln, Neb., to erupt as it did after Donovan's decisive goal, the converts and their cash are sure to follow:
-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.
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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, The Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.