The 2014 World Cup soccer tournament is a ratings success for U.S. broadcaster ESPN and its Spanish-speaking partner Univision. Monday’s USA vs. Ghana opening match drew 15.9 million viewers in the U.S., easily the most-watched soccer match ever broadcast in this country. Tonight the U.S. plays Portugal, and it will be ratings gold.

Soccer is becoming must-see TV, at least every four years when the World Cup rolls around. Last week’s USA vs. Ghana soccer match on ESPN had almost as many total viewers as the series-clinching Game 5 between the San Antonio Spurs vs. the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. That game drew 17.9 million viewers on broadcast network ABC.

The amazing jump in viewership for soccer in the United States is being driven by the marketing department at ESPN. If soccer is going to stick here, those are the folks who can do it. There’s a long way to go in making futbol compete with football for viewers, but clearly 15.9 million signals a breakthrough for the sport in the last country on earth to embrace it en masse.

Futbol is king in almost every country on the planet. Football rules in the United States. The gap won’t close in my lifetime, but it might in yours. This past Super Bowl between the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks drew 111.3 million viewers in the United States, setting another record as the most-watched event of all time in this country. That game was a blowout, but it didn’t matter. The Super Bowl is ingrained in our way of life just as soccer or futbol is in every other country.

At the very least, soccer is pushing aside golf, tennis and other fading sports in the eyeball race.

For years soccer enthusiasts have spread their sport’s gospel and have made some headway. Yet the sport that is so popular among youth hasn’t managed to gain a foothold on television at either the amateur or professional level here. And it won’t until enough viewers tune in on a regular basis to watch.

ESPN’s dominance among sports broadcasting is unparalleled. The self-described Worldwide Leader in Sports can create demand where others have failed.

If ESPN can bring viewers in consistently, soccer will take off in the U.S. much the same way the NFL did when the Super Bowl was created some 50 years ago.

For all the good ESPN marketing is doing for soccer, similar efforts with traditional sports are less successful. Its marketing efforts are even causing a backlash among fans. There is a growing sentiment among fans that the network has too much influence, and that influence is changing the nature of sports. Consider its latest venture, the SEC Network. The SEC won seven straight national championships between 2006 and 2012. Three were by Alabama, two by LSU, two by Florida and one by Cam Newton. Fueled by ESPN’s marketing prowess, we’re being told the conference as a whole is on another planet compared to all others — especially in football.

The SEC is good, there’s no doubt about that. But the SEC’s dominance in football titles is courtesy of its upper echelon, not the conference as a whole.

Somewhere along the way, ESPN bought into regionalism, and non-SEC markets are showing their growing distrust in the integrity of the network’s on-air college football product.

When a powerhouse such as ESPN invests as much money as it has in the SEC, it must protect its investment. It will do everything it can to make sure the conference is successful in football, the dominant money sport in college athletics. Fans know this, which is why they are skeptical of anything ESPN says about college football as a whole these days.

Marketing a burgeoning sport such as soccer can be a win-win for everyone. I don’t watch soccer, but I want to see the sport succeed in this country. (Had to quit watching tennis when the grunting got out of control.) Hopefully, in 2018 Fox Sports can build on the success created by ESPN this year.

Football is already successful here, and there’s a fine line between marketing and manipulation with America’s game. ESPN is walking that line more and more with its growing line of regional specialty networks.

Steve Boggs is editor of the Tribune-Herald. Email

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