PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- The World Cup is over, but there's a lot more for soccer's newest converts to watch even after the world's teams left Brazil.
ESPN averaged 3.54 million viewers through the group stage 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 averaged nearly 18.3 million viewers on ESPN and Univision combined for its three opening-round matches, with the 24.7 million audience for its match against Portugal making it the most-watched opening-round World Cup match in U.S. history. Even the U.S. loss to Belgium in the Round of 16 drew 16.5 million viewers to ESPN alone and 21.6 million to ESPN and Univision combined. Throw in ESPN and Univision's digital audiences, and that viewership soars to 28.2 million, which would be the largest viewership for soccer in U.S. television history.
ESPN, Univision and ABC have discovered their combined $425 million investment in the U.S. broadcast rights for the 2010 and 2014 World Cup paying dividends far beyond what the U.S. men's national team could produce. Until this year, the most-watched World Cup match in U.S. history was the 2010 World Cup final between Spain and The Netherlands on ABC and Univision. That combined television audience of 24.3 million was the largest in history for a U.S. soccer broadcast and overshadowed easily the 19.4 million who watched the Round of 16 matchup between the U.S. and Ghana that year -- the most-watched U.S. national team match to that point.
This year's numbers have only solidified the U.S. interest in international soccer regardless of which teams take the pitch. A combined 9.5 million viewers watched host nation Brazil's opening match against Croatia on ESPN and Univision, falling just short of the 12.6 million viewers who tuned in to Game 4 of the NBA Finals later that night on ABC. ESPN's opening-match viewership was 49% greater than its audience for the 2010 World Cup and a bigger crowd than any World Cup opener in the past 20 years. Univision, meanwhile drew nearly triple the amount of viewers NBC did with the early rounds of golf's U.S. Open that same day.
Later in the tournament, a whopping 11 million U.S. viewers would tune in on a Tuesday to watch Mexico play Brazil to a draw. That's an audience not only considerably larger than the 5.8 million the National Hockey League averaged per game for its Stanley Cup finals, but equal to the number of viewers who watched the 2013 Major League Baseball All-Star Game on Fox. When Mexico made it to the Round of 16 and lost narrowly to The Netherlands, 17 million U.S. viewers tuned in. Again, for perspective, that's the same number of U.S. viewers that watched the World Cup final in 2006 and larger than the crowd of 16.5 million that watched the U.S. team's final group stage match against Germany.
It's no fluke, and U.S. broadcasters know it. The $425 million Fox paid for the English-language rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cup is equal to the value of the English- and Spanish-language World Cup broadcasts in 2010 and this year combined. Comcast-owned Telemundo had to pay $600 million just to wrest the Spanish-language rights for those same events away form Univision.
Why? Because the U.S. soccer audience is not only growing, but worldly. Major League Soccer's television ratings are on par with WNBA broadcast and TBS reruns, but NBC's broadcasts of English Premier League matchups on Saturday morning have managed 438,000 viewers per match this season. 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.
Those big matches regularly outpace Fox's Saturday baseball game of the week, which is why NBC had no problem shelling out $250 million for just two seasons of EPL action. Fox struck back by securing rights to UEFA Champions League and CONCACAF Gold Cup matches through 2015, while ESPN invested in the European Chamionship and in Liga MX matches out of Mexico. Al-Jazeera's beIN, meanwhile, holds both the Spanish- and English-language rights to Spain's La Liga and put in a competing bid for the Premier League rights.
Why? Because the kids are watching. Children 17 and younger made up 4.6% of the 2013 World Series audience on Fox -- which had an average age of roughly 54. NBC's 2013 coverage of English Premier League soccer drew 11% of its audience from that age group. That generation is a big reason why sales of Electronic Arts' FIFA Soccer video game series in North America have soared from 1.52 million copies in 2010 to 2.36 million last year. They're not only fans of the game, but get more regular exposure to global stars such as Lionel Messi, Neymar, Arjen Robben and Wayne Rooney through the game than they currently do through U.S. television outlets.
Within the next year, there are going to be a whole lot of chances for new U.S. soccer viewers to get more familiar with the game through their national team and elsewhere. Here are just five examples of what's on the slate:
Major League Soccer All-Star Game
MLS All-Stars vs. Bayern Munich
Network: ESPN 2
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.
The bad news? 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.
Still, each year it manages to do an excellent job with its All-Star Game by bringing in a European powerhouse to take on the league's best players. This year, it's U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann's old crew Bayern Munich from Germany's Bundesliga. Not only one of the best teams in the world, Bayern Munich is also a who's-who of World Cup talent. U.S. forward Julian Green, the 19-year-old who scored the last goal of the tournament, is on this roster. Netherlands striker Arjen Robben is a starter, as is French star Franck Ribery.
Much of the rest of the roster is a mishmash of German national team starters who were invaluable to their team's run to the title match. Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, defender Jerome Boateng, striker Thomas Mueller and captains Phillipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger should all be familiar faces to those who caught their matchup with the U.S. team, their late-round matchups with France and Brazil and the Cup final.
The MLS All-Stars are going to have their hands full, but that's a group of names worth watching. Just about the only thing the match doesn't have going for it is timing. Because it's being played in Portland, Ore., it starts at 9:30 p.m. on the East Coast. That isn't great news for a league that saw its stars draw 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 2012.