Ladies and gentlemen, I can happily report that the United States of America is now officially a soccer nation.
OK, that's not exactly the truth, or even all that close to the truth. Nevertheless, the stats found below are encouraging for diehard fans of the sport who live in the US, and also proof that Americans will go out of the way to watch a soccer match that they find interesting. There are also numbers below that remind all supporters that there is still a long, long way to go when it comes to growing the game in this country.
Paul Kennedy of Soccer America reported early Tuesday morning that Spanish-language channel Univision drew in roughly 9.4 million total viewers for last Wednesday's Mexico vs. United States Men's National Team friendly, a game the US won 1-0 to give the Americans their first win on Mexican soil. That number, according to the SA report, made Univision's coverage of the match the "No. 1 broadcast program in prime time among adults 18-49, adults 18-34, men 18-49 and men 18-34," beating all four major three-letter networks.
The 9.4 million stat is undeniably impressive, but it's also a bit misleading. As the SA story and also John Ourand of Sports Business Journal explained, Univision actually averaged 4.5 million viewers throughout the match. ESPN2, showing the game at the same time and with English commentary, brought in an average of 797,000 viewers.
It's the ESPN2 number that is a bit of a downer. The same station showed USA vs. Mexico, a game played in the United States on a Wednesday night, last summer. That match drew in 1.084 million viewers. It began at 9:30 pm ET (kickoff was delayed a half-hour because of ESPN2 showing the Little League World Series). This past Wednesday's match started on time at around 8:00 pm ET.
Why the big difference in number of Univision viewers vs. those who watched the ESPN2 coverage? Believe it or not, it's not just because of Mexico supporters or Spanish-speaking American fans tuning into Univision. A surprising amount of people in my circle of "soccer friends" choose to watch USMNT/USWNT matches on Univision over ESPN/ESPN2/NBC Sports Network when given the opportunity, even some who speak little to no Spanish. For these individuals, the coverage and commentary provided by Univision is just that much better than what's found on whatever English-language station is also carrying the match.
The biggest complaint friends of mine have about ESPN/ESPN2 is the commentary crew(s). "I'd rather put it on Univision/Telemundo and not understand all they are saying than listen to Ian Darke and Taylor Twellman," one friend said to me last Wednesday evening during halftime of the match. From multiple conversations I've had with friends on this exact subject over the past couple of years, I've found that the topic of ESPN soccer commentating crews is one that is very polarizing. Truth be told, I don't have a single negative opinion on Darke or Twellman; "on frame drinking game" jokes aside.
Last Wednesday's Mexico vs. United States match also proved another important thing: Major League Soccer should never go head-to-head versus any US National Team. Ourand reported via Twitter last Thursday that the Columbus Crew vs. LA Galaxy match that was airing on NBC Sports, a game that entered the second half of play as Mexico vs. USA kicked off, drew in only 52,000 viewers. Who could have possibly seen that one coming?
In all, soccer in the United States is enjoying a rather successful summer. Soccer matches airing on the NBC family of networks were the big hit of the 2012 London Summer Olympics. MLS games showing on NBCSN and ESPN/ESPN2 are on track to break viewership records. MLS attendance figures are up. The US may never turn into a true "soccer nation," but facts about the growth of the game in the United States continue to provide hope for those of us who love the sport so much.