Women’s World Cup Final’s Record TV Audience Shows Soccer’s Slow Growth In U.S.

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This is becoming an annual exercise.

Soccer and sports fans, plus part of the curious public in the United States, watch major soccer events in droves. Records fall, people notice, and the media scrambles to answer questions like “Has soccer finally arrived?” and “What does this mean for the future of the sport in America?” My response always is the same: America already is a soccer nation, and the sport’s here to stay.

It’s happening again this week.

The United States women’s national soccer team beat Japan in the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup final Sunday. FOX, the tournament’s English-language broadcaster in the U.S., reported surprisingly high television ratings Monday, and The New York Times proclaimed a new “Record for Soccer.”

“The United States? 5-2 victory over Japan in the Women?s World Cup final on Sunday was seen by 25.4 million viewers on Fox — a record for any soccer game, men?s or women?s, shown on English-language television in this country,” the Times reported. “With nearly 1.3 million viewers watching on Telemundo, the Spanish-language station, the total of 26.7 million also exceeds the record 26.5 million combined viewers that saw Germany beat Argentina in last year?s men?s World Cup final on ABC and Spanish-language Univision.”

There it is, in all it’s glory.

USA-Japan also out-drew the last games of the NBA and NHL Finals, as well as the World Series, but has the American public has transformed into a rabid band of soccer fans?

No, not especially.

The number 26.7 million is impressive — in a nation of almost 320 million — but no reason for euphoria. The audience merely reflects soccer’s ongoing march on its upward trajectory in a country that didn’t follow the sport at the highest level in great numbers until the 1990s.

Some 17.9 million watched the 1999 Women’s World Cup final. The 2015 final drew 8.8 million more. Increasingly, professional marketing and promotion and more comprehensive media coverage can take some of the credit for the bump, as can the prime-time kickoff slot and light sports calendar in early July. Also, the U.S. population has grown, and there are undoubtedly more hard-core and casual soccer fans than there were then.

The 2015 U.S. women’s national team out-performed the 2014 World Cup men’s team on the field and in the ratings’ race, but it doesn’t mean the women are more popular than the men. After all, 18.2 million watched a USA-Portugal, a group-stage game, last summer. If the U.S. men’s national team ever reached the semifinals or final, 40 million or more likely would tune in, regardless of kickoff time.

FOX and FIFA are winners of a ratings bonanza, which now happens three out of four summers, as sponsors advertisers and sponsors throw increasing amounts of cash their way. But these events are quadrennial in each sport and benefit a select group.

The lives of the players we know and admire won’t change much. They’ll enjoy some extra income, but the World Cup win won’t pay them enough to retire from working when their playing careers are finished. They’ll return to their clubs in the nascent National Women’s Soccer League as conquering heroes, but what effect will the World Cup ratings have on the domestic league?

Attendance likely will spike briefly in the second half of the season before ebbing to its natural level. Any bump in NWSL television ratings might turn the league, which relies on financial support from the U.S., Canadian and Mexican federations to pay some of its players, into a self-sufficient entity. It might not.

Let’s hope Team USA’s World Cup win prompts more U.S. residents to learn NWSL basics like the teams, players and season begin and end dates and watch their favorite teams week-in and week-out.

An average of 114.4 million viewers watched the NFL’s Super Bowl in February, setting itself apart as the “most-watched show in U.S. history,” according to the Los Angeles Times. I’m sorry to report soccer’s not there yet, and won’t be anytime soon. Don’t shoot the messenger. See you next summer.

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Thumbnail photo via Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

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