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Univision’s Soccer Scores

Jun 19, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Soccer, the world’s most popular sport, is finally catching on with American television viewers. Or, at least, World Cup soccer is.

The global soccer tournament, which kicked off June 9 in Germany and concludes with a championship match July 9, is akin to the Olympics of soccer, with national teams competing for worldwide bragging rights every four years. It is generating record ratings stateside, particularly for Spanish-language network Univision.

Matches throughout the tournament are scheduled to air primarily in mornings and afternoons on The Walt Disney Co.’s ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 as well as Univision and Univision’s Telefutura.

So far more people-an average 2.3 million total viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research-are turning to game coverage on Univision than that of any other network. And it’s not just Spanish-speaking viewers who are watching.

After the first 14 World Cup matches, Univision’s ratings were 11 percent higher than those of ABC and ESPN2 among total viewers. Univision’s lead was even bigger among the younger demographics.

Just how much the sampling of Univision might pay off for the network down the line remains to be seen. Likewise, while soccer has long been a passion among Univision’s Hispanic viewership, it’s difficult to determine whether more general market viewers have become interested in watching soccer in general on TV or whether they’re simply drawn to the drama of the big event.

Regardless, the ratings so far are stunning.

Univision’s World Cup ratings are up by a remarkable 101 percent in households from four years ago, when most games were aired in the middle of the night from Korea. Mexico’s match against Iran on June 11 on Univision was the most-watched sporting event in Spanish-language television history, beating previous World Cup finals matches. In addition, that match was the second-most-watched sports telecast overall for the weekend, with 5.4 million viewers, trailing only Game 2 of the NBA Finals on ABC.

Ratings are up on ABC by a smaller margin, while ESPN2 showed some big gains with the U.S. team’s first game against the Czech Republic on June 12. The U.S.-Czech game was the highest-rated soccer telecast ever on ESPN2 and the highest-rated telecast of any kind on the channel so far this year.

This season Univision has been measured as part of the Nielsen Television Index as well as the Nielsen Hispanic Television Index, providing a daily reminder that it draws more viewers than The WB and UPN and that its shows often beat the Big 4 networks in the 18 to 34 demographic.

And while there are yet no hard statistical evidence, there are anecdotal examples of English-speaking viewers opting to watch the Univision broadcast in bars, health clubs and offices.

“I was in my office and I was watching the game with the Spanish-language commentary,” said Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports, now a consultant. “They made it sound like there was so much drama and so much excitement that at one point I ran back into the room to see what was happening, and the ball was in midfield. If there’s a good pass or a good stop, they get very excited.”

Four years ago, about 15 million of the 35 million people who watched the World Cup on Univision were non-Spanish speakers, according to a Univision spokesperson.

U.S. Growth

That sort of research is not yet available for this year. But a spokesperson for the Univision station in New York said that the difference between the number of Univision viewers registered in Nielsen’s general market panel could be accounted for by non-Spanish speakers watching the game on Univision.

During the Poland-Germany game June 12, the Hispanic panel shows 135,000 viewers for WXTV in New York, while the general market panel gave the station 191,000 viewers-a 60,000-person difference.

But in any language, “World Cup soccer is getting a tremendous amount of viewership and interest in the U.S., much more so than in previous years,” Mr. Pilson said.

“The World Cup has always been a very special event for the Hispanic and Latin population in the U.S. For them it’s a religion and a passion,” he said.

Among non-Spanish-speaking Americans, said Mr. Pilson, “there is a growing interest and perception that this is a truly important world-class event. It’s reflected in the growing ratings on ESPN, the coverage in newspapers and magazines. There’s a recognition that this is a very important event in the rest of the world and we should pay attention too.”

Whether interest in the World Cup will translate into soccer becoming an important television sport in the U.S. was less obvious.

“I think a lot of people are watching the World Cup and are not necessarily watching soccer,” Mr. Pilson said. While sports like volleyball, swimming, skiing and gymnastics draw big ratings during the Olympics, they don’t do as well on their own, he said.

“I’ve certainly been impressed with the numbers that even an ESPN2 is pulling and ABC is pulling for these soccer events,” said Sam Sussman, senior VP, media director at media buying agency Starcom. “It’s showing that the needle is moving in interest levels within the World Cup and American soccer.”