PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- It's a whole lot easier to say baseball is dying when the World Cup is blocking its spotlight.
ESPN 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 opening-round matches, with the 24.7 million audience for its match against Portugal making it the most-watched World Cup match in U.S. history.
So that's it, right? The World Cup's per-match average absolutely crushes Major League Baseball's average of 630,000 fans or so watching regular-season games, while the U.S. team's total is well above the average 14.9 million viewers that MLB and Fox mustered for last year's World Series. The New York Times called it "Bigger Than Baseball," so this must be baseball's last, sad slide, no?
No, not at all. The problem with using the World Cup as a U.S. soccer yardstick is that it in no way connects to annual reality. Once the World Cup goes away, U.S. fans are left with only Major League Soccer as a U.S.-based soccer outlet. The good news is that MLS attendance is holding steady at around 18,500 -- ahead of the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League (fewer than 17,800 per game each) and even outdrawing MLB teams on average in some markets -- and that 40% of MLS' TV viewership is age 34 or younger, according to Nielsen.
Unfortunately, that TV audience is nearly nonexistent. MLS playoffs averaged 320,000 viewers last season, with a playoff game between the Portland Timbers and Real Salt Lake drawing fewer eyeballs than a rerun of Everybody Loves Raymond. Regular-season MLS matches averaged 220,000 viewers on ESPN and about half that on NBC Sports Network. By comparison, the WNBA drew about 230,000 viewers for each of its games.
What about European leagues such as the English Premier League? In the wee, small hours of Saturday mornings, NBC has managed 438,000 viewers per match. That's up from 220,000 on Fox and ESPN in 2012 and includes 1.2 million for a Cardiff-Swansea match, 1.1 million for a tilt between Swansea and Manchester United, and 1 million for Man U-Crystal Palace matchup. In total, 4.9 million U.S. viewers tuned in for the last day of EPL matches and averaged 1.8 million per match, up from 869,000 last year.
That all still falls short of baseball's draw, especially in the eyes of the networks. ESPN and Fox just paid $600 million for the rights to MLS and U.S. national team matches through 2022. NBC, meanwhile, shelled out $250 million for two seasons' worth of premier league rights. Fox just paid $425 million to broadcast the World Cup in English in 2018 and 2022, while Comcast-owned Telemundo coughed up $600 million for the Spanish-language rights. The last time Major League Baseball sorted out its television contracts, it came away with $700 million per season from ESPN alone in an eight-year deal starting this year that includes postseason Wild Card games.
MLB tacked eight-year deals with Fox and Turner Sports from 2014 to 2021, with Fox kicking in $500 million per year and Turner parting with $300 million each season. That gives each of them access to playoff games, though Fox gets more access to Division Series games and the Saturday Game Of The Week. It also gets the All-Star Game, which has faded since its peak audience of 36.3 million back in 1976 and but still draws a respectable 11 million viewers -- which is still about half of the viewership it received in 1994.
Major League Soccer's All Stars drew just 319,000 to ESPN2 when they played AS Roma during their league's All-Star game last year. Even that was down 530,000 from their All-Star matchup against Chelsea in 2013.
Baseball's heard all the naysaying before. It knows that Nielsen figured out that 50% of baseball's viewing audience is age 55 or older. It knows that the average age of a World Series viewer last year was 54.4, up from 49.9 in 1999. They know that kids under 17 are more likely to watch an MLS (17%) or Premier League (11%) match than they are to watch baseball's playoffs (4.7%). They know that Little League baseball participation declined from 2.7 million in 1997 to 2.1 million last year while U.S. Youth Soccer participation boomed from 2.4 million kids in 1995 to more than 3 million today.
Major League Baseball just has no reason to care. Its $8 billion in revenue last year was second only to the National Football League's $9.5 billion and is greater than that of the National Basketball Association ($5 billion) and National Hockey League ($2.4 billion) combined. Major League Soccer, meanwhile, brings in little less than $500 million in revenue, which places it beneath second-tier soccer leagues in England and Germany.
And just to add a bit of perspective, even averaging roughly 18,500 fans per match, MLS draws little more than 6 million fans total per season. While Major League Baseball hasn't drawn anywhere close to the 79.4 million fans who came out to the ballpark in pre-recession 2007, the 74 million fans it drew last season were more than 12 times what Major League Soccer could muster. Average baseball attendance of 30,514 not only overshadows MLS' 18,500 per game, but it is nearly 10,000 more than it was 30 years ago and higher than it was even 10 years ago.
As for the age of those fans, that's nothing but a number to baseball. When someone tells MLB its fan base is old, it just finds a sponsor with similar demographics -- such as Anheuser-Busch InBev's Budweiser -- and and turns it into a marketing opportunity. While the fan data don't bode well for baseball's future against football, basketball and even soccer, Major League Baseball's continued ability to draw fans and revenue suggests that reports of its demise may dwindle once the World Cup's spell wears off.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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