21.6 million Americans watched the USMNT’s round of 16 loss to Belgium on Tuesday. That’s a lot of people, and it marks only the second most-watched match of this very World Cup. But there is the assumption, mostly correct, that when this World Cup ends, so will audiences of that size. Buoyed by a quartet of games featuring the U.S. ESPN and ABC have averaged 4.1 million viewers through the first 56 games of this World Cup. Not only is that larger than the 2010 World Cup, it’s three times larger than NBC’s largest Premier League audience, twice as large as the Champions League final. Even before getting into the Spanish-language numbers, the World Cup dwarfs all other soccer in this country.
It’s time for that to change.
At some point, if we are to really claim that soccer has arrived, it must have a significant presence beyond the World Cup. We can’t allow the ignorant to even joke after a World Cup that America only cares every four years. No one is expecting 20 million viewers for MLS tomorrow. But it would be a step in the right direction if the league could average better than one percent of that figure. I think we are poised, in 2014, to make a lasting soccer fanbase out of this World Cup.
It starts with Major League Soccer. It is our league, and it happens to be playing right now. You don’t have to wait four years to see the US’s best; you don’t even have to wait four days. Sporting Kansas City probably isn’t going to see a big jump from the returns of Graham Zusi and Matt Besler, because they already sell out every game. But MLS teams should make sure to market American stars when they visit for road games. Let’s treat Clint Dempsey and DeAndre Yedlin the way we once treated David Beckham: with large crowds everywhere they go. Add Michael Bradley and Kyle Beckerman, and it’s possible MLS has never had so many recognizable American stars. I hope people give them a loud welcome home.
No league sent more players to the World Cup than England’s Premier League. And while perhaps NBC would have liked England to do a little better this summer, there is no shortage of World Cup stars for NBC to try and capitalize on. Robin van Persie has three goals for the Netherlands, Arsenal has three members of the German squad, and no one is currently more recognizable in American soccer than Everton’s Tim Howard. Last summer, their advertising campaign focused on the atmosphere of the Premier League. This summer, they should be looking to highlight the World Cup talent in the league. To their credit, they already have a commercial along these lines. They even had the foresight to leave Suarez out of it.
But perhaps no one will have more say in the state of soccer in the U.S. over the next four years than Fox. That’s not a phrase that inspires me with a great deal of confidence, but they hopefully will prove me wrong. It starts in earnest next month, when the new MLS TV contract begins. Fox, ESPN, and Univision will give the league $90 million a year and guaranteed timeslots, and in return the league is adding new teams, new stadiums, and new talent. NBC’s coverage has been widely praised, but hopefully Fox will be willing to pick up that burden.
Over the course of next June, the Women’s World Cup will be played in Canada. This isn’t to be underestimated. The final against Japan brought ESPN 13.5 million viewers in 2011, and the location of next year’s tournament should provide for better timeslots. If the USWNT can make another run, that would be good for the game as a whole in this country. The Women’s World Cup will be Fox’s first big test in the build up to Russia in 2018, and the largest examination of Gus Johnson’s commentary yet. For good measure, the U.S. men will play a Gold Cup on Fox later that summer. Hopefully, they can parlay one event into the other.
The Bundesliga is maybe the most mysterious item on this list. Among European leagues, it’s probably third at best in the American consciousness, behind England and Spain. People will recognize Bayern Munich from Fox’s Champions League coverage, this summer’s all-star game, and half the German World Cup squad. But even they aren’t a brand name along the lines of Manchester United or Barcelona. There are a lot of questions still to be answered here. Just how many games will Fox show? I don’t expect them to treat it with nearly the same devotion NBC has given the Premier League. Will games be on FS1 or FS2? Given the conflicts with college football and basketball, I would expect more of the latter. Will Americans watch? Most Bundesliga games will overlap with the Premier League; I don’t know how the German league will fare in that shadow.
In 2016, the U.S. will host Copa America Centenario. If this special tournament gets FIFA recognition to release players from their clubs, it will feel like hosting a World Cup. American fans will have the opportunity to see Messi, Neymar, and all the other South American stars in competitive matches. The USMNT will have the opportunity to play competitive matches against some of the best teams in the world. ESPN will be showing Euro 2016 that same summer, and Fox is expected to land the rights for this. I hope they treat it like a major event, and hype it as though it were a World Cup. If taken seriously, this tournament has immense potential.
The next few years are crucial for soccer in the U.S. I haven’t even gotten into the chance of playing in the 2017 Confederations Cup, or the continued growth of MLS attendance, or the countless other major things that will happen between now and Russia. Because of the timeslots, the 2018 World Cup is very unlikely to match this year’s viewership totals. If the sport’s presence isn’t made known, and loudly so, in the four years between now and then, certain ignorant voices will claim that soccer has peaked, that it’s already in decline. Don’t let that happen.