The U.S.-Portugal game drew an astonishing 24.7 million people, when you add together the people who watched on ESPN and the people who watched on Univision. Throw in the people who watched the live stream, the number shoots to about 26 million. That is just about how many people watched the BCS National Championship game last year. It’s pretty remarkable.
Of course, it’s easy to make too much of this. USA-Portugal was something of a perfect storm. The game was on Sunday at 6 p.m. -- the PERFECT time for high ratings. The game was so important because of the United States’ stunning victory over Ghana a few days earlier. And the World Cup only happens every four years -- so this was a rare, rare event. This is not to downplay the hugeness of the audience, -- it was huge -- but the reason it drew the same numbers as the BCS National Championship is, at least in part, because this year featured a blah BCS National Championship between Florida State and Auburn. When Texas and USC played in the Rose Bowl, 10 million more people watched. One thing that I fully expected was for people to start comparing these ratings to the World Series. That usually happens whenever people want to make the point of how much the NBA is growing or how dominant the NFL is getting. And, on command, it did happen. Well, sure it did, the comparison is too juicy. This was the largest audience ever to watch a soccer game in America and, since 2005, only one World Series game -- Game 7 of the 2011 World Series between Texas and St. Louis -- has had an audience close to what USA-Portugal garnered. Since the World Series went to FOX in 2000 only one series -- the 2004 Red Sox finally breaking the curse series -- averaged 25 million viewers.
Here are the average audience numbers since the 1994 strike (by millions):
A lot has been said and written about the dwindling World Series ratings and what they tell us about baseball in America. Like with the USA-Portugal game, you can make the World Series ratings say more or less what you came in already believing. For instance, if you think baseball is out of touch with America, you can say the clearly ratings show that. Look how they have dropped!
If you think baseball has become more or less a regional game, you can show that with the numbers.
If you think the numbers are just an indication that we’ve had pretty lousy and uncompetitive World Series lately, hey, you can say that too ... the last time a World Series went to a Game 7, about 25 million people watched.
If you think the baseball season is way too long and the extra playoff games take away the specialness of the World Series, well, there’s evidence of that too. From 1984-1993 -- before there was the wildcard round of playoffs -- the World Series averaged a staggering audience of more than 31 million per game. That was the AVERAGE. The 1986 Game 7 between the Mets and Red Sox drew a crazy 55 share -- something close to 60 million viewers -- and that wasn’t even the record. In 1980, Game 6 between the Royals and Phillies drew a SIXTY share. True, there weren’t any choices back then but still those are crazy numbers.
Since 1994 -- the strike, the addition of the wildcard, the PED stuff and so on -- the World Series averages about 19.6 million viewers. That’s a lot of people but it’s way down -- almost 40% down. Remember when I said that the 1984-93 games averaged 31.4 million? Since the strike not even one World Series game has drawn that big an audience.
I suspect none of these factors is the defining one, though. I think this is probably due, as much as anything else, to a cultural shift. We have changed the way we watch television. We have changed the way we watch baseball. We have almost unlimited choices these days -- both on television and with baseball viewing -- and so the World Series numbers go down.
I do think about one other factor, one I don’t hear too many people talking about. It seems that as a country we now demand EVENT television. We want one show, one night, everything at stake. The Super Bowl. The Academy Awards. Game sevens. Even the television series we generally watch like Scandal or Game of Thrones often have that “if you miss tonight’s show, you will regret it for the rest of your life” vibe. Heck, if you miss a Game of Thrones, seven of your favorite characters might have been killed off.
Sunday’s World Cup game had that now-or-never energy -- if the U.S. had lost to Portugal their chances to advance would have been pretty slim. It really fit perfectly into the American mood.
Baseball almost never has that one game. The sport just isn’t geared that way. I can come up with dozens of scenarios where a World Series game would draw 35 or 40 million people, but they probably won’t ever happen. Say it’s a Game 7 between the Dodgers and Orioles. Say Yasiel Puig had done some sort of crazy Puig thing in Game 6 -- he hit a 500-foot homer and danced the Mambo around the bases while glaring at Buck Showalter. Say Showalter after the game said the Orioles had something special lined up for Puig. Yeah, the ratings for that game would be INSANE, they would lap the World Cup game. Or say Clayton Kershaw is going for his third straight no-hitter. Or say that Nelson Cruz has homered in seven straight at-bats.
But baseball just doesn’t have that sort of one game drama very often. The game isn’t built for one-game drama. It’s not really built for playoff drama -- something that I think Bud Selig and others have missed. Baseball is about 162 games. Baseball is about seeing the game in person. Baseball is drawing SEVENTY-FIVE million fans over its very long season -- compared to 16 million NFL fans per season, 22 or so million NHL and NBA fans, Minor league baseball as a whole draws 40 or so million people too.
Baseball is about nightly television audiences in 30 cities and their surrounding areas. Baseball is about that extraordinary MLB.com app that takes you to any game at any time. Baseball is about familiar voices performing as background music at barbecues or taking people on their commutes to work or along errands or over family vacations. There are things I think the lords of baseball could do to make the game more national, more of a television event, but I suspect everyone is making too much money at the moment to worry about it.
All of which is to say: The World Cup audience was staggering and wonderful. The response to the Premiere League this year was something of a revelation. Soccer is a very much a part of the American landscape now and it will only continue to get bigger, and that is fantastic because it’s a wonderful sport. But let’s not bury baseball just yet.