World Soccer Talk

A brief history of the World Cup, European Championship and Copa America on US TV

As Christopher Harris reported here at World Soccer Talk, the final ratings for Euro 2016 were, much like the quality of play, decent but not spectacular. Copa América Centenario, thanks to Univision’s reach and the USMNT’s run, captured a slightly bigger audience. But by putting the numbers for the two tournaments into context, we can see just how far the sport has come in this country.

With the ability to now stream every match, whether scarfing a slice on Coney Island or sipping a cortadito on South Beach while chasing Pikachu on our phones, it’s easy to forget just how abominable soccer coverage here once was. As with World Soccer Talk’s essential history of Premier League TV availability, remembering what American soccer coverage was like reminds us of how the sport’s slide into the mainstream was a monumental struggle.

 

“Given the ratings, I don’t think anyone will go for it,” Or A Brief History of World Cup, Euro, and Copa América Coverage on American TV

  1. The World Cup:

The World Cup final was first fully broadcast in the US in 1966, 12 years after Europeans first got the competition beamed into their living rooms. NBC aired England’s thrilling win over West Germany on a same-day tape delay using the BBC’s black-and-white feed. NBC’s success with the broadcast “was the final jolt” in forming a modern professional American soccer league, said former Cosmos GM and NASL Commissioner Clive Toye in 1985.

Despite good numbers, NBC declined to do it again in 1970. Thankfully, ABC stepped in to show the Italy-Brazil final from Mexico, and in glorious color to boot. But the bad news was that ABC waited until Christmas, six months after Brazil won, to show it as part of a “Wide World of Sports” episode! Sadly, in 1974, the only network viewing option was once again stale highlights as CBS crammed bits of the spectacular West Germany-Netherlands final into its “Sports Spectacular” show.

All three networks passed on Argentina ‘78. In stepped the Spanish International Network, Univision’s precursor, to broadcast the action to both Spanish-speakers and those whose Español never got better than the Beastie Boys’ “sat across from a man reading El Diario, riding the train down from the El Barrio.” Throughout the dark ages, savvy soccer supporters would angle their antennas to get SIN, but back then it was only available in a handful of major cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York.

City slickers had another option aside from Spanish-language TV as movie theaters would show the big games via closed-circuit. But the price was as eye-popping as Paul Pogba’s transfer fee. In 1978 tickets cost $20, which is a whopping $70 in today’s money! For comparison, a ticket to peep any of 1978’s amazing movies like “Animal House,” “Every Which Way But Loose,” “Grease,” or “Halloween” only cost around $2.50. Still, the hunger was there. In 1970, 250,000 people saw Pelé’s immortal adieu in a theater and then twice as many people ponied up to see Gerd “Der Bomber” Müller crush Holland’s dreams in 1974.

By the early days of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America,” ESPN and PBS (yes Bob Ross’ PBS) teamed up to offer minuscule coverage of Spain ’82. At the time ESPN was only a glimmer of the omnipotent behemoth it would become as it only reached 17% of US TV households. In a major milestone, ABC aired Italy’s win over West Germany live, a first in American television. Yet despite ABC Sports VP Jim Spence calling it “such a special event,” the network cut away from live action in each half to show commercials.

ESPN then broadcast 15 matches from Mexico ’86 and got a decent .4 rating (approximately 370,000 viewers) for its efforts. NBC aired a few games as well, including the final. An impressive 3.8 million people tuned in to see Maradona’s Argentina down West Germany. Or maybe they just wanted to enjoy Herb “This Guy’s In Love With You” Alpert’s jaunty Mariachi-tinged intro. Excellent music choices aside, NBC’s producers struggled as they were forced to run the game’s audio feed through phone lines rather than through satellites, and they bristled at the international camera feed’s insistence on showing the actual game rather than cutting away to shots of fans in the stands.

In 1990, TNT broadcast a few World Cup matches but often with five commercial breaks per half, which forced viewers to watch Atlanta Braves promos instead of goals. Writer James Krohe Jr wryly observed, “the fact that the world’s most popular sporting event is being covered by a Spanish-language UHF station and a cable service whose programming consists mostly of colorized musicals, [and] Bugs Bunny…says everything about the status of soccer in the U.S.”

On the bright side, there was the sight of Ernie Johnson wearing glasses that doubled as lenses for the Hubble Space Telescope while struggling to pronounce names like Yugoslavia’s “Davor Jozić.” The audience was growing as TNT built upon ESPN’s 1986 numbers to average close to a million viewers for the semi and final. Still, TNT claimed to have lost money on Italia ’90 after paying $7.75 million for the rights.

For long-starved American soccer fans used to decades of disrespect, hosting the 1994 World Cup and being able to watch every game on TV was like upgrading from huffing paint thinner to freebasing crack. But until ABC and ESPN teamed up to showcase the first tournament on American soil, there was real doubt as to whether the games would air at all. “Given the ratings, I don’t think anyone will go for it,” said NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol in 1990 in explaining the lukewarm interest. At the same time, former Secretary of State (and rabid Cosmos fan) and vice-chairman of the ’94 World Cup Organizing Committee Henry Kissinger admitted, “TV is a problem.”

Soccer was still a novelty then, as Baltimore Sun columnist Ray Frager joked, “what kind of television is this? We all know that only PBS goes without commercials. And we’ve all known for a long time just how un-American those people are.” But with the USMNT dazzling in denim on their way to the Round of 16 and with packed stadiums coast-to-coast, the sport was now impossible to ignore. ESPN paid $11 million for the ’94 broadcast rights, whereas FOX is now paying $425 million for the ’18 and ’22 Cup rights.

Of course, that phenomenal growth was built on the USMNT, culminating in 2014’s World Cup. The 28.4 million-strong audience that watched the US narrowly lose to Belgium in the Round of 16 rivals that of any NBA Finals or World Series viewership this century. (Although for some perspective, while the US-Belgium game was watched by an impressive 9.8% of all American TV households the Wales-Portugal Euro 2016 semifinal was seen by 74% of all Welsh TV households and by 43% of all TV households across the United Kingdom.) Impressively, it’s now not just USMNT matches getting the huge audiences as decades of American soccer fans preaching the gospel and ESPN’s saturation coverage built up the audience to the point where 27.25 million Americans watched the Germany-Argentina final.

  1. The Euros:

Clearly, there’s now a massive market for games not involving the US, which leads us to the European Championship and Copa América.

Their recent broadcast history is nearly as bad as the World Cup’s was before the 1990s.

If you wanted to watch Euro 2000, you had to plop down an astounding $20 per match, or $149 for the entire tournament, via pay-per-view. Those prices were insane enough to make anyone want to go out and get a drink. But back then, many bars didn’t have cable or satellite packages and some didn’t even have TVs at all. And, especially outside big cities, asking a bartender to put soccer on the TV would get you the same disdainful look as asking for a buttery chardonnay. Even if a bar wanted to show Euro 2000, Setanta charged them a whopping $3,000 for the privilege, which often meant a $20 cover charge. If you didn’t want to pay, and if you could avoid finding out the score, then, well, there was the desperate option of waiting an entire week to watch the replays on Fox Sports World. Admittedly it was easier to not know the score in the dial-up era when loading a soccernet.com page would take the better part of a day.

By 2004, the barbaric broadcast situation improved. Slightly. Like going from a studs-up slide into your shin to a shoulder shove off the ball. The PPV price for the whole tournament went up to $179 while the price for pubs rose to $4,000 but Fox showed a whole FIVE (5) matches live. Otherwise, Fox showed matches on a 3-to-5 day delay. DirecTV reported about 20,000 pay-per-view customers. At the time, Setanta CEO Michael O’Rourke shockingly revealed, “we offered the events to ESPN. We even offered to pay them to put it on. Same with Fox Sports Net. But there was no appetite.”

ESPN proved that the hunger was there as it went all-in on the 2008 Euros, televising all the matches mostly in HD. Although most of the group stage games were shunted to ESPN2 or ESPN Classic, ESPN averaged more than 700,000 viewers for its coverage. By 2012, ESPN’s average Euros audience grew to 1.14 million.

All it took was a little faith that the appetite was there to go from repellent and anti-growth pay-per-view to this summer’s welcoming watch anywhere coverage. There’s a lesson here for fringe sports like rugby union (parts of the World Cup and all of the Six Nations on PPV), cricket (World Cup on PPV), and Gaelic games (PPV for the entire season) that put short-term small-time profits ahead of building a bigger audience that could bring in bigger money.

  1. Copa América:

Copa América’s path to the mainstream was similarly tortured. In 1995 few got to see a burgeoning USMNT beat Argentina 3-0, win their group, beat Mexico in a quarterfinal and narrowly lose 1-0 to Brazil in the semi because the matches were only available via pay-per-view or in closed-circuit theaters. An executive at Prime Network, the company that offered the PPV matches, scoffed “they complain about U.S. Soccer not putting the games on ABC or ESPN, but we had the rights.”

Fans had to once again pay to watch in 1997. In 1999 FOX Sports offered 17 games from Paraguay on pay-per-view at $15 per match or $100 for the whole tourney. But they were at least kind enough to offer the Brazil-Uruguay final on Fox Sports Español.

The turn of the century brought a turn in fortunes as Univision brought the 2001 edition from Colombia to broadcast TV. The network averaged 1.4 million viewers for their efforts. Univision was once again the exclusive home for the Copa in 2004, where the average improved slightly to 1.75 million.

There was once again an English-language option for Copa America 2007 as Gol TV picked up the rights just in time to show the USMNT making its first appearance in the tournament since the magical 1995 run. Univision’s average audience grew again, to 2.5 million, and in a major step, it offered online streaming for the first time.

ESPN, after generating big traffic online for its 2010 World Cup streams, tried and failed to add the 2011 Copa America rights to its then-nascent ESPN3 streaming service. “It’s really unfortunate. That’s one we would have loved to add,” said a dismayed Scott Guglielmino, ESPN’s senior VP for programming. Instead Traffic Sports copped the English-language rights and put all the games on YouTube for free. Traffic Sports was later swept up in the Justice Department’s big FIFA corruption probe in 2015. With Brazil, Argentina, and Colombia out in the first knockout round, and with Paraguay advancing to the final via two nil-nil penalty shootout wins, Univision’s ratings fell from 2007 but the network still attracted 2 million-plus for the semis and final.

Finally, in 2015, Copa América found a mainstream English-language home with beIN SPORTS, which also took away Univision’s Spanish-language rights. Well, mainstream is a bit generous because unfortunately beIN is in only 17 million homes, which is only 14.6% of American TV households. fuboTV, which counted 50,000 subscribers, offered tournament streaming. Despite beIN’s limited reach, it snagged 1.5 million viewers for the final.

FOX Sports beat out ESPN and beIN for this year’s Copa America Centénario, and so for the first time ever most of the US could watch what is sometimes considered the 2nd best international tournament in the world. An average of 4 million viewers got to enjoy the games. The 2019 tournament’s TV rights are back on beIN SPORTS.

 

Looking at hockey, baseball, and basketball ratings gives us a good sense of soccer’s place in the sports firmament. This year’s Stanley Cup Finals averaged 4 million viewers while regular season games on NBCSN only averaged 378,000 viewers. Last year, regular season MLB games on FOX Saturday afternoons averaged 2.2 million viewers while ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” earned a 1.74 million average. NBA regular season games on TNT and ESPN averaged 1.7 million viewers. While the seemingly modest average audiences of 4 million for Copa América and 1.16 million for the Euros (and truly modest MLS numbers) won’t impress the Ann Coulters of the world much when, for example, a staggering 8 million people watched this year’s Pro Bowl, the numbers still stack up well against non-NFL sports.

Of course, comparing international tournament numbers to regular season MLB, NBA, and NHL games is a little unfair. But American soccer fans aren’t praised enough for their open-mindedness and willingness to watch games from all over the world that don’t involve the US. Baseball fans have been slow to embrace the World Baseball Classic as highlighted by the lackluster US rosters and the viewership of 843,000 for the last WBC final between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic in 2013. Moreover, the domestic market for the Caribbean Series, played in a region that produces a huge percentage of major leaguers, and the Japan Series, which has the best baseball fan atmosphere in the world, is non-existent. Hoop junkies support Team USA at the Olympics, as evidenced by the 12.5 million who watched the Gold Medal game and 2.6 million who watched their group games, but the American appetite for non-US games, the Euroleague, and other FIBA tournaments is smaller than Nate Robinson. It’s a similar story in hockey where Team USA’s battles with Canada generate big numbers but Gold Medal games like 2006’s Sweden-Finland not so much. American Football is more popular than every other sport in this country combined yet despite the yawning chasm between February and September, CFL games on ESPN only attract between 100,000 and 300,000 viewers.

Are MLS’s ratings weak? Certainly. But its shortcomings in that department are mostly the league’s own fault. And MLS is only one part of the modern fan’s omnivorous diet. The swift rise of the European Championship and Copa América to mainstream relevance after being almost completely unknown in this country is absolutely astonishing. The two tournaments’ widespread availability this summer is a just reward for decades of devotion by America’s hardcore believers in the sport. All of which is not to say that it’s a zero-sum competition between soccer and the other sports but rather to appreciate how it has evolved to become an everyday part of American sporting life.