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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