U.S. Soccer: Many Players, Few Spectators

Americans apparently haven't been setting their alarms, or even watching tape-delayed matches, judging by flat U.S. television ratings for World Cup soccer.

Yet participation in the sport is soaring in this country. Nineteen million people played soccer at least once in 2001, according to American Sports Data Inc., and it is the only team sport to experience growth in participation in the 1990s.

But participation doesn't equal spectatorship, said Harvey Lauer, ASD president.

"Sure, kids are playing soccer, but they're watching other sports. I don't think it will ever become dominate as a viewer sport in this country," he said.

"You'll never see a 400-foot home run or a Hail Mary pass," said Lauer, "there's nothing really glamorous or exciting to draw Americans away from the sports that they grow up with."

Ratings from World Cup's first weekend reveal America's disinterest in the game's grandest tournament. Viewership for ABC's first two tape-delayed broadcasts declined by about 25 percent from the opening two live telecasts during the 1998 tournament.

Ireland’s 1-1 tie against Cameroon in Japan on Saturday got a 1.6 overnight rating and a 4 share, ABC said. That was down 30 percent from the 2.3 overnight rating and 7 share for ABC’s first broadcast from the 1998 tournament in France, the Netherlands’ scoreless tie against Belgium.

ABC is broadcasting seven of the 64 games during the tournament. But because of the 13-hour time difference between the East Coast of the United States and Japan and South Korea, the only live telecast will be the final on June 30, which starts at 7 a.m. ET.

ESPN and ESPN2 are showing live coverage of 57 of the 64 games, with 16 on ESPN and the rest on ESPN2. The game times range from 1:30 a.m. to 7:30 a.m.

But rooting for the home team did get more people out of bed. An upset victory over Portugal for the U.S. team earned decent ratings for ESPN2.

The match aired from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. Wednesday and averaged a 1.19 rating, or 998,000 households, The New York Post reported. The 1.19 represents a significant jump over the first six games that aired on ESPN2, averaging a 0.53 rating.

Four years ago, ESPN showed 27 games, ESPN2 showed 23 and ABC 14 – all live.

"It’s going to take time," said Alan Plum, a spokesman for Major League Soccer. "MLS is only in its seventh season, so to expect people to know our players, as well as personalities in other leagues that have been around for years and years, is not a fair correlation."

MLS is targeting tomorrow's fans today — about 80 percent of U.S. soccer players are under the age of 18, and around 70,000 attend MLS summer camps, where the goal is to instruct and get kids excited about the league.

"We want to educate kids that have made soccer an integral part of their lifestyle," said David Wright, MLS manager of fan development.

Plum said soccer has wide player appeal because it’s a very active sport, "unlike baseball, where only two players touch the ball the majority of the game." Players also don't need much equipment, which keeps costs of the game low.

Ironically, the high participation rate may actually hinder television viewership, said Wright. Most kids, and their soccer moms and dads, are on a field weekend afternoons when MLS games are broadcast.

But the MLS bets their efforts to get younger generations will eventually produce adult soccer fans. "This is a long-term vision," Wright said. "The U.S. has more soccer participation than any other country in the world."

Lauer isn’t as optimistic.

"Soccer will never make it in this country because kids haven’t grown up watching it and there’s too much competition from the big three – football, basketball and baseball," he said. "It’s what you grow up with that determines what you love when you get older. Sure – they play soccer. But they’re watching other sports."