World Cup ratings hit a 16-year high in U.S.

NEW YORK (Mediaweek) - Even the B-flat drone of the vuvuzelas hasn’t tempered America’s enthusiasm for the World Cup, with ratings reaching a 16-year high as the football tournament heads into the third round of the group stage.

Through the first 14 matches of the World Cup, ESPN and ABC have delivered an average crowd of 3.35 million viewers, marking a 64% increase from the same period in 2006, when the networks drew 2.9 million fans.

The initial portion of the round-robin stage was distinguished by the much-anticipated June 12 U.S.-England tie, which drew 13 million viewers on ABC, making it the most-watched first round World Cup game in U.S. broadcast history.

Spanish-language broadcaster Univision also drew a big crowd last Saturday, serving up 4.1 million viewers with its coverage of the 1-1 Yanks-Brits match. The Group C battle stands as Univision’s second most-watched U.S. World Cup match ever, trailing only the U.S.-Mexico round-of-16 showdown in 2002 (4.2 million). Through its first 17 broadcasts, Univision averaged 2.24 million viewers (data for 2006 coverage were unavailable).

If the early numbers aren’t enough to convince skeptics that soccer is becoming America’s fifth major sport, consider this: In 2006, 99.7 million viewers turned to ESPN, ABC and Univision for their World Cup fix. All told, the nation accounted for the eighth-largest aggregate of global World Cup viewers, up from its No. 23 ranking in 1998.

Then there’s the outpouring of support for the U.S. side. When midfielder Clint Dempsey slipped a wobbler past luckless England keeper Robert Green, the rangy Texan all but ensured a solid draw for the June 18 USA-Slovenia match. “In those games the American team is in, we’re going to do great numbers,” said ESPN executive vp John Skipper.

And while a trip to the round of 16 would keep the ratings fires burning, Skipper said he believes viewership “will be up dramatically whether they stay in or not.”

Granted, the deliveries would metastasize at an even greater rate if ESPN or Univision were credited for taproom and taqueria audiences. As neither network has made guarantees against Arbitron’s unaccredited ARB-TV service, millions of fans will go uncounted.

Along with the linear viewership, the tournament has drawn a sizable live audience to the Web. If nothing else, the World Cup appears to be proving the power of ESPN’s cross-platform heft. Based on early research, ESPN through Day 3 recorded a 13% reach lift from non-TV platforms, which encompasses all World Cup content (not just live games) delivered by, and mobile platforms, as well as ESPN Radio and ESPN The Magazine.

Univision is streaming all 64 games online for free. “We’ve set new records each day since the start,” said Kevin Conroy, president of Univision Interactive Media.

Through June 15, had tracked 6 million visits in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, double its 2006 traffic. The site averaged 250,000 unique viewers during live matches, peaking with 130,000 concurrent users during the Brazil-North Korea match.

“What’s really notable is the level of engagement,” said Conroy, adding that the average time of a typical viewing session is 30 minutes.

While Web traffic is significant, live mobile streaming may be seeing the biggest uptick. Though neither ESPN nor its mobile partners could provide total audience numbers for live mobile streaming, according to Ray DeRenzo of MobiTV, this year’s Cup is the “biggest single viewing event in our history.” Similarly, Qualcomm’s Flo TV said the World Cup had already drawn the third largest audience in its history, behind Barack Obama’s inauguration and Michael Jackson’s funeral.