NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
The last time the U.S. soccer team made it as far as it did in this year's World Cup, television had not yet been invented. But the subsequent invention of the medium has done little to help the sport's popularity or profitability in this country.
Even with Friday's 1-0 loss to traditional powerhouse Germany, the team's best showing since 1930 has stirred excitement among hard-core fans and interest among the uninitiated. But it's going to be tough for the sport to turn this year's success into a long-term gain in popularity. U.S. fans may love a winner, especially an underdog winner, but for the most part they still don't understand or appreciate soccer.
Soccer is a popular participation sport in the United States, especially at the youth level, where it now rivals Little League baseball. But once our kids stop playing, most of us stop watching, tuning into sports that give us more scoring with a shorter attention span required.
And even if the sport becomes more popular here, it won't become a favorite of the television networks, which have trouble advertising during the two continuous-play halves. It's the reason that the World Cup, arguably the world's most popular sporting event, has a U.S. television contract ranking it behind Arena Football here in terms of dollars to the sport. Even in countries where soccer is king, such as Germany and England, the difficulty of advertising during the match itself has resulted in bankruptcy for some pay-per-view soccer broadcasters.
|The U.S. team has risen above expectations in this year's World Cup, but getting U.S. broadcasters excited about the sport will be an even greater challenge.
When no U.S. television network showed interest in bidding for the English-language rights to the men's and women's tournaments through 2006, Major League Soccer, the struggling U.S. league, stepped forward and bought the rights to the three tournaments itself for a bargain-basement $40 million. It then agreed to pay Walt Disney Co. (DIS: Research, Estimates) for the air time to show the games on ESPN, ESPN2, and ABC, turning a premier sporting event into the moral equivalent of an infomercial.
While ESPN and ESPN2 are showing live games, ABC will air all games but the championship match on tape delay. It'll wait to rebroadcast the U.S.-Germany game until Saturday rather than disturb its lineup of daytime talk shows, soap operas and syndicated game shows later in the day Friday.
MLS officials will get what sponsorship and advertising money is available from the broadcasts, but despite the modest rights fee, it'll be difficult for it to make money under the deal.
"We will not break even this year," said Tom Haidinger, vice president for corporate partnerships and national media for MLS. "Over the term of the agreement, we hope to."
But even if it loses money on the deal, Haidinger says it was worth it for the league to buy the tournaments' U.S. English-language rights and pay Disney for the airtime.
"From image standpoint, it's critical," he said. "We're contributing two-thirds of the players to the U.S. national team. We're a top level soccer league, and that's a message we have to keep out there."
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Still it's tough to imagine soccer ever gaining the popularity of the four major team sports and many individual sports such as auto racing, tennis or golf, among U.S. sports fans. And it's safe to say the tournament will never have the interest here that it does in other countries, where virtually all activity grounds to a halt when their nation's team takes the field.
The sport does have a strong base of support in the United States, but it's more with the Spanish-speaking residents, many of them immigrants from countries where soccer is the national sport, than English-speaking American fans. Spanish-language network Univision (UVN: Research, Estimates) has scored some big numbers despite broadcasts from Korea and Japan that were in the middle of the night here.
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In fact when the U.S. played Mexico early Monday in the first elimination game, about the same number of households watched the game on Univision as did on ESPN, even though ratings-tracker Nielsen estimates that Spanish-speaking households are outnumbered by English-speaking households by about 10-to-one.
In Los Angeles, Univision's largest market, the network said the game pulled in more viewers to Univision's flagship KMEX affiliate than all the English language stations combined for the 11:15 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. PDT broadcast. And the game got a higher rating on Univision than any other sporting event did during the course of the weekend in Los Angeles, including the U.S. Open and the baseball games between the two local teams, the Dodgers and the Angels.
Even though Mexico has been eliminated, Univision expects its ratings to continue to climb as the tournament moves to the semifinals and final match, despite the fact that all the Spanish-speaking countries from this hemisphere have been eliminated. That's the difference between fans who love the game and love a winner.