Making Headlines: FIFA, World Cup Soccer, and the US Media - Café with Mario
Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Making Headlines: FIFA, World Cup Soccer, and the US Media

On Thursday, May 28th, 2015 US Media exploded with coverage of the US indictments by Attorney General Loretta Lynch against 14 high-ranking FIFA soccer officials and sports executives for racketeering and bribery.

Four of the largest newspapers in the United States in terms of national circulation (according to dedicated a massive amount of front page real estate to the FIFA investigation.  Specifically USA Today, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post, respectively and in descending order, dedicated 51%, 39%, 24%, and 18% of front page space to the announcement as can be seen in the animated figure.

Four days later, when FIFA President Sepp Blatter resigned, another splash of front page coverage was provided by the New York Times (23%), USA Today (19%), Wall Street Journal (12%), and the Washington Post (10%) as illustrated in the next animated image.

To the casual observer this may go unnoticed but to a US soccer fan the significant amount of front page coverage of the FIFA indictments obfuscates the US media’s insouciance to soccer as shall be discussed.  But first a little perspective on the sport of soccer.

No matter how the data is sliced and diced, soccer is by far the World’s Most Popular Sport.  Period.  As shown in the world map illustration, soccer is the dominant sport in South America, Europe, and Africa.  More than 200 countries take part in the World Cup whose final is watched by an estimated 600 million people.  While rankings vary slightly depending on the metrics used, the next graphic provides a visual scaling of the Top 10 sports worldwide, weighted by country size.

While there is no dispute that soccer is the World’s Most Popular Sport, in US rankings according to a 2014 survey taken by the Harris Poll (which has been asking adult fans, ages 18 and over, about their favorite sport since 1985) Soccer is tied with Ice Hockey for a distant fifth, sandwiched between Auto Racing (4th) and Tennis (7th).  In the survey, 42% of fans called [American] Football their favorite sport while only 6% said the same for Soccer.  Further, the popularity of Soccer in the US has only increased 3% since 1985 while the popularity of Football has increased 11% during the same period.

Oddly though, while the popularity of soccer in the US could hardly be much lower, going into the 2014 FIFA World Cup the US soccer team held a #13 FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking out of 209 national teams ranked.  For its regional CONCACAF confederation the US held the highest rank, 7 spots higher than the next highest and traditional regional powerhouse Mexico (#20).  Logic would dictate that being ranked #13 in the World’s Most Popular Sport that soccer in the US should garner major media attention and a fanatical following.  But therein lies the enigma which shall be examined by examining the 2014 World Cup across five (5) simple criteria: Front Page Newspaper Coverage, Attendance, Fanaticism, Game Commentary, and TV Ratings.

In terms of Front Page Newspaper Coverage an analysis of how the same four (4) leading US newspapers covered the US team’s June 17th, 2014 World Cup opening match against Ghana shows that the Washington Post dedicated the largest front page coverage with 20%, followed by the Wall Street Journal (14%), the USA Today (13%), and the New York Times (6%).  On its own, it may appear as though the US newspapers gave soccer a respectful share of front page coverage.  However, when graphically compared to the coverage given to the Announcement of FIFA leadership Indictments and to Blatter’s Resignation it is evident that the editors determined that World Cup Soccer is not as significant to their newspaper’s readership bases. 

Another significant 2014 World Cup event for the US soccer team that can be used to add to the analysis of Front Page Newspaper Coverage is the advancement of the US team from the Group Stage to the Round of 16.  The significance of this is put in historical perspective when noting that since the post-WWII 1950 World Cup, and prior to the 2014 World Cup, of the 23 CONCACAF team appearances at the World Cup only eight (8) times has a team moved to the Round of 16 and only three (3) times has a team ever made it to the Quarter Finals (the last being the US in 1984).  No CONCACAF team has ever made it to the Semifinals.  For the fans of a CONCACAF team, advancing to the Round of 16 is their equivalent of making it to the final, and advancing to the Quarter Finals is celebrated as if winning the World Cup.  Surprisingly, 3 of the 4 CONCACAF teams advanced to the Round of 16 at the 2014 World Cup.  Costa Rica (with a FIFA/Coca-Cola ranking of 28) was honored with 82% front page coverage by the leading newspaper and Mexico (with a FIFA/Coca-Cola ranking of 20) received a respectful 32% of front page coverage from the leading newspaper.  Meanwhile the highest ranking COCACAF team, the US, received a barely visible 1% from the New York Times (Hint: Click on the image and then look in the lower left corner).  Assuming that the editors make a judgement as to how much front page coverage to devote to certain events based on their subscriber base profile, it would follow that the US national soccer team advancing to the 2014 World Cup Round of 16 is a non-event to their readers.

But is the US population really that disinterested in World Cup soccer?  According to FIFA, the US bought more tickets to the 2014 World Cup than any other nation except Brazil, the host country.  Overall, 60% of the tickets were bought by Brazilians and 40% by fans from the rest of the world. After hosts Brazil (1,363,179), the USA led the international pack with 196,838 tickets, followed by Argentina (61,021), Germany (58,778), England (57,917), Colombia (54,477), Australia (52,289), Chile (38,638), France (34,865) and Mexico (33,694).  Much ado was made about this in the US press.  However, when the ticket sales are adjusted for country population and house net-adjusted disposable income (HNADI), the US drops from 2nd to 10th (last) within this same group of countries.  Even when a further adjustment is made for venue distance with an aggressive compensation factor that brings Australia to par with Brazil, the US remains last in this group.  Finally, one must consider that it is most likely the case that all the tickets sold to the US, a multi-cultural nation that has always welcomed legal immigration, were not purchased exclusively by fans of the US national team.  Reviewing these adjusted ticket sales numbers it begins to appear as if the newspaper editors may be correct in their assessment of the number of soccer fans within their respective subscriber base.

It is probably appropriate at this juncture to take a closer look at US soccer fans and their level of World Cup fanaticism.  For a fan of the World’s Most Popular Sport, the World Cup is a party like no other.  Held only every four years, over the course of about 30 days of northern hemisphere summer the World Cup is a festival that brings worldwide soccer fans together.  The almost daily soccer matches are promoted to the top over every fan’s agenda no matter whether one is attending a World Cup game or watching the match on television.  And soccer fans are not known for holding back on displaying their fanaticism for their favored team.  If their original favored team losses during World Cup play the party continues by choosing a new favorite among those teams remaining.  Typically the order of favoritism is one’s national team, followed by others in the team’s confederation, followed by others in the team’s continent, and ultimately, ironically, rooting for the team that eliminated one of the fan’s previous favorites.  In the end, a World Cup soccer fan always has a team in the final match for which they will be screaming and rooting for.

Every soccer fan becomes a fanatic during the World Cup soccer carnival.  And like the Carnival celebrations in Brazil or New Orleans, soccer fans are uninhibited in their regalia as shown in the accompanying animated image showing representatives from almost every country playing in the 2014 World Cup.  So how does US soccer fanaticism compare? It so happens that much of the credit for the aforementioned 2014 World Cup ticket sales in the US was given to the American Outlaws a group described as “a diehard fan club headquartered in Lincoln, Nebraska with more than 125 chapters across the nation -- cities such as in Miami, San Francisco, Seattle and more.”  With such a reputation they must have not just taken the lead in getting US soccer fans to the World Cup, but they must also have been leaders in driving US fervor within their crowds to match those from other countries as shown in the previous animated figure.  The following photograph shows the American Outlaws at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group G match between Ghana and the United States at Estadio das Dunas, June 16, 2014 in Natal, Brazil.  While the group clearly demonstrates indisputable American patriotism, soccer fanaticism is totally absent from the scene; there is no fanatical soccer fan to be spotted anywhere in this crowd of over 300.  Click on the image and spot a soccer fanatic if you can.

Now an examination of the last two criteria of Game Commentary and TV Ratings.

Unlike high scoring sports, every goal scored in soccer is celebrated to a great extent.  Even more, a great goal can become legendary in its own right – relived in perpetuity amongst soccer fans.  A goal is not just a score, it is a special moment of heightened emotion and appreciation for the World’s Most Popular Sport.  During the Round of 16 stage matchup between Colombia and Uruguay at the 2014 World Cup James Rodríguez scored an amazing goal for Colombia that was ultimately named by FIFA as the best goal of the tournament.  Watching the following video of the actual goal is pure visual nirvana, but listening to the commentary is where media coverage takes an interesting turn.  The commentary in the video has been incorporated in a special stereo format; the left channel is from Univisión and the right channel is from ESPN/ABC.  By adjusting the balance with the audio controls one can appreciate the difference in coverage by the two networks targeting their respective audience.  A truly fascinating comparison of the role US media can have on shaping soccer fanaticism.

The differences in commentary coverage as illustrated in the above clip is well known.  In fact, it is the subject of the following advertising spot placed by Univisión for the FIFA Brazil 2014 World Cup coverage.

Nonetheless, while the excitement in the Spanish language coverage by Univisión is missing in the ESPN/ABC commentary, the fact that most of the US population is English speaking only translates into more US viewers for ESPN/ABC than for Univisión as illustrated in the following chart.  However, as a fraction of the English and Spanish speaking US populations the penetration by Univisión is immensely greater.  Thus for example the 2014 World Cup final match between Germany and Argentina drew 17.3 million viewers on ABC and 9.2 million on Univision nationwide. With the US having 230.9 million English only speaking people and 37.6 million people speaking Spanish, ABC’s final match covered had a 7.5% penetration and Univisión had a 24.5% penetration.  Perhaps the ESPN/ABC soccer viewership penetration numbers are affected by the excitement level in their English game commentary. 

Nonetheless the combined U.S. viewership of 26.5 million for the 2014 World Cup final was the most ever for a soccer game.  Surprisingly this is more than the most watched game of the 2014 NBA finals between the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat which had 17.9 million total viewers and more than the most watched game of the 2013 MLB World Series between the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals that topped out at 19.2 million viewers.  However it is eclipsed by the 2014 Super Bowl which with 111.5 million viewers became the most-watched television event in U.S. history.  The following figure compares US viewership of the 2014 World Cup finals to other major sporting events.

Perhaps the following figure can provide some insight into why the NFL has such a greater audience than World Cup soccer.  With only 8.3% of game play, an NFL game provides ample opportunity for advertising; pure commercial spots make up 24.5% of the televised game.  Soccer on the other hand provides little revenue generating time which must come during half-time (only 14.3% of air time) and must be shared along with game commentary and highlights of the first half.

So despite being a regional powerhouse in the World’s Most Popular Sport, US soccer would appear to be underserved vis-à-vis the rest of the world when it comes to Front Page Newspaper Coverage, Attendance, Fanaticism, Game Commentary, and TV Ratings.  The US Media has the ability and capacity to effect change in all these.  Perhaps the US Media is unintentionally holding back the rise of soccer popularity in the US.  With greater Front Page coverage, with more exciting English Game Commentary, the level of Fanaticism will rise accordingly and so will Attendance at World Cup Matches.  TV Ratings for the World Cup viewership as a percent of population will gradually reach the 60-80% seen in other World Cup participant countries, a number even NFL viewership is not remotely close to reaching.  And with such a spectacular level of viewership and reach record breaking advertising revenues will flow through even modest amounts of half-time commercial spots, that based on record audience reach will no doubt eclipse the cost of Super Bowl half-time commercial spots.

In closing there is no better guidance to the US Media as it relates to World Cup soccer than echoing the sentiments of soccer fans worldwide by quoting Oliver Stone in DirectTV’s “Director’s Cut” commercial spot that was created by the advertising firm of Young & Rubicam BA for the FIFA Brazil 2014 World Cup and stars Kun Agüero, Radamel Falcao and David Luiz.

“I want glory.

I want more flags.

More people.

More passion.

Ladies and Gentlemen,


Watch Oliver Stone in DirectTV’s “Director’s Cut” commercial spot here.

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Item Reviewed: Making Headlines: FIFA, World Cup Soccer, and the US Media Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Mario Larach