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.