Thank you ESPN, for taking the World Cup seriously

It’s here.  And for a US soccer fan, it’s going to be even bigger than ever.

For three years and 11 months, soccer fans in the United States live in relative obscurity.  Yes, we find each other at soccer friendly bars, read and comment on soccer-focused blogs and rise early on the weekends to watch our favorite European club matches; but for the most part, we fly well below the radar of American sports fandom. And while soccer has a long way to go to truly capture US sports fan’s attention, the 2010 World Cup may prove to be the tipping point that brings the beautiful game into the mainstream (especially if the Yanks play to their true potential).

Let’s look at a reason why this may be the case.

Despite what many traditional sports broadcasters say about soccer in the US ("It will never be big because there isn’t enough scoring," "It’s a game for our kids," "It’s boring"), interest in the game (as measured through web traffic) has risen substantially since the last World Cup four years ago.  In fact, traffic to two of the larger soccer destination websites has grown an average of 14% per month since February 2006.

The chart below shows monthly US unique visits to both fifa.com and soccernet.espn.go.com from February 2006 to May 2010.  Naturally, international tournaments create spikes in activity.  More importantly, however, is the growing visitation to these websites over the past four years.

  • US unique visitor traffic to fifa.com in May, one month prior to the start of the World Cup, is 273% higher than the same month in 2006
  • Similarly, soccernet.espn.go.com traffic one month out from the World Cup has increased 179% from four years ago

One theory behind this growth is the fact that Americans now have much more access to live and delayed broadcasts of elite leagues in Europe and South America.  Watching the best soccer in the world week in and week out through Fox Soccer Channel, Goal TV, and ESPN on 50-inch HD televisions, as well as increased niche coverage of the game through blogs and sites like ESPN’s soccernet is likely feeding and nurturing the core base of soccer fans across the country.  Getting exposure to high quality games, it seems, breeds more fans -which is exactly what ESPN also seems to have learned in the past 8 years.

The 2002 World Cup was nearly unavailable as an English broadcast in the United States — a last minute effort by Soccer United Marketing and revenue sharing deal with ESPN saved its fate.  In 2006, ESPN’s play-by-play commentary was provided by Dave O’Brien, a baseball announcer who had never called a soccer game prior to the event.  Viewing this year’s World Cup in the United States, however, will be a much different experience.

2010 finds ESPN investing in World Cup as a broadcast product much like the Olympics.  ESPN is taking full advantage of the new ways we consume entertainment by providing fans and non fans alike with a near overload of World Cup content including:

  • All 64 games of the tournament will be broadcast live in both SD and HD on ESPN, ESPN2 or ABC
  • 25 games will be carried in 3-D!
  • 54 games will be broadcast live on ESPN3.com
  • 54 games will be broadcast live on and on mobile devices through MobiTV
  • All 64 games will be broadcast live on ESPN Radio as well as on Sirius XM
  • 230 hours of additional (non-game) programming
  • SportsCenter broadcasts from South Africa
  • 1 reporter embedded with the US team

Of course, ESPN’s coverage of the 2010 World Cup (and for that matter Univision’s as well, which will broadcast the World Cup in Spanish with equal furor) are likely just one piece of the rise of soccer in the US.  But for a long time fan, I’m certainly glad to see it covered like this.  After all, I’ve waited 3 years and 11 months for it.