Update, June 17: Includes ratings from Monday's U.S.-Ghana match and updated weekend ratings.
PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) — Wave goodbye to LeBron James, Manu Ginobli, Chris Bosh, Kawhi Leonard and the NBA Finals, U.S. sports fans: They were all that was standing between you and the World Cup.
After the first weekend of World Cup play, it's clear that only the National Basketball Association holds a larger place in the heart of U.S. fans at this time of year. And that was only before the U.S. Men's National Team kicked off group play against Ghana.
Monday's matchup between the U.S. and the team that drove it out of the World Cup twice in the last eight years not only ended in a much-needed win over Ghana, but it resulted in a 7.0 rating and 3.7 million audience for ESPN. Throw in another 3.8 million who watched on Univision and you have the second-largest audience for a U.S. opening-round match in history -- and only because the U.S. draw against England in 2010 aired on a Saturday on network television (ABC). It's also only part of the story.
On Thursday, the 2014 World Cup had the grave misfortune of hosting its opening match on the same night as Game 4 of the NBA Finals. At 9 p.m. Eastern and for much of the rest of the night, ABC averaged 12.6 million viewers for its NBA title matchup. Earlier in the day, ESPN managed just 4.04 million viewers for host nation Brazil's opening match against Croatia. That's still 49% greater than its audience for the 2010 World Cup and a bigger crowd than any World Cup opener in the past 20 years.
Oh, and it's not even close to the match's entire U.S. audience. Univision has the $325 million Spanish-language rights to this year's World Cup and averaged 5.1 million viewers for that same Brazil-Croatia matchup. Throughout the weekend, Univision saw a World Cup crowd roughly 7% larger than that of ESPN, ESPN2. On Thursday, however, it drew nearly triple the amount of viewers as NBC did with the early rounds of golf's U.S. Open (which averaged 1.87 million viewers at 6 p.m. Eastern). Between both ESPN and Univision, roughly 9.14 million fans watched the World Cup's opening match, nearly doubling the 5.5 million viewership of the second most-watched prime-time show on Thursday night — CBS' Two and A Half Men.
It's not incredibly shocking that Univision's numbers would be that impressive. Yes, Nielsen notes that the 34% Spanish-speaking audience for Major League Soccer is the largest percentage of any major U.S. sports — larger than the 8% share of National Football League viewers, the 9% share of baseball viewers and the 12% stake of all basketball audiences. But the fact Univision is available free via antenna in most major markets — compared with ESPN and ESPN2, which account for more than $6 of the average monthly cable or satellite bill — certainly helps its cause as well.
What is impressive is the weight that ESPN and Univision throw around as a result of their combined coverage. On Friday, the National Hockey League's Los Angeles Kings needed two overtime periods to finish off the New York Rangers in the deciding Game 5 of their Stanley Cup Finals series. That epic finish was watched by 6 million viewers on NBC, which is just lovely for hockey. But the 2010 World Cup final rematch between Spain and The Netherlands earlier that day drew 8.1 million viewers on ESPN and Univision combined. The Mexico-Cameroon matchup that preceded it drew a combined 7.1 million viewers. Even a late matchup between Chile and Australia drew more than 6 million. That's not only more than NBC could muster for hockey, but it's more than ESPN's broadcast sibling ABC could draw for that night's second-most-watched show, Shark Tank.
Though the weeked numbers are still trickling in, it's pretty clear that not even baseball and its diminishing claim to the “national pastime” title can take on the World Cup. Fox opted, in its infinite wisdom, to park a Major League Baseball game of the week on Saturday night and show the world exactly what traditional U.S. sports fans thought of the World Cup. Their answer: What's baseball? That game (which varied by market) drew an average of just 2.33 million fans from 7 p.m. Eastern onward. ESPN, meanwhile, sat back and allowed 4.61 million fans to enjoy themselves watching Italy beat England 2-1 in what was, to that point, the highest-rated English language World Cup broadcast in the U.S. this year. Univision didn't release its audience numbers immediately, but noted that it doubled ESPN's audience for the same match in Los Angeles and Miami.
Early season, pre-All-Star Game baseball just isn't much competition for a sporting event of the World Cup's magnitude, but few things are. Sunday's deciding Game 5 of the NBA Finals featured 18 million people watching the Spurs beat the Heat for their fifth NBA title. No World Cup match came close to that total, but none had to. With the NBA and NHL out of the way, the U.S. Open drawing a paltry 4.6 million for its closing round on Sunday night and baseball not quite ready for prime time, Argentina's opening matchup with Bosnia-Herzegovina drew 4.2 million viewers on ESPN alone, with Univision easily doubling that total. The World Cup and soccer in general are in a unique position in the U.S.: They have sports fans' largely undivided attention. ESPN, ABC and Univision will be curious to see what the sport does with it.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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