On TV, at Least, World Cup Soccer Is America's Second-Most Popular Sport

Fans in Grant Park celebrate a goal by the U.S. against Portugal in a Group G World Cup soccer match on June 22 in Chicago Photograph by Scott Olson/Getty Images

The 2014 FIFA World Cup match between the U.S. and Portugal produced another record-breaking ratings number for ESPN and Univision. The combined 24.7 million viewers—18.2 million on ESPN and 6.5 million on Univision, neither number official yet—would make it the most-watched soccer game in U.S. history, just topping the 2010 World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands.

Soccer, at least in its World Cup form, can now make a claim to being the second-most popular televised sport in the U.S., behind only American-rules football.

The chart above shows selected marquee events for the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, Nascar, college football, college basketball, horse racing, and golf in the last year. Plus Monday’s World Cup match. The audience for each event is measured by the average number of viewers over the age of two, using data collected by Nielsen and provided by Brad Adgate of Horizon Media. Since this year’s Daytona 500 had a long rain delay that depressed ratings, the chart uses the 2013 audience number. The top-rated game from best-of-seven series is shown for  the Stanley Cup, NBA Finals, and World Series, as well as the top-rated day for the Masters.

The NFL easily tops the World Cup—not only with the unmatched television power that is the Super Bowl but also with conference championships. College football’s title game, the BCS Championship between Florida State and Auburn in January, also outdid Sunday’s U.S.-Portugal match—but just barely, with 25.6 million viewers. After that, everybody trails the big soccer game.

Plenty of caveats that go with a comparison like this: The World Cup is once every four years. Some of these events are on broadcast TV, others on cable. Some are on during the week, others on weekends. But with numbers like these, talk of soccer as un-American should probably be put to rest. And ESPN and Univision are probably wishing they had bid harder for rights to broadcast the World Cup in 2018 and 2022.

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