Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Patriotism Drives Television Ratings of National Team

Soccer fans around the US erupted a second time today when the ratings for yesterday's game between the United States and Ghana were announced.
Big numbers, to be sure. But then people try to draw comparisons to other sports... mistakenly so.
Problem is you are comparing apples and oranges. A national all-star team playing with the flag on their uniform in international competition, versus two teams out of over two dozen similar teams in the country. It's simply not the same thing.
The best comparison is to the Olympics. When it's the Olympics, people watch curling, skiing, gymnastics, swimming, and track much more heavily than they do during the rest of the year. Or the preceding three years.  Nobody says that when NBC pulls in huge ratings for the Olympics that suddenly interest in curling or gymnastics is booming.  It's simply people watching the best in their country competing with the best the rest of the world has to offer.

I'll give you another example: hockey. I'm a hockey guy.  Love the game.  But I also know that it ranks fourth in the United States in terms of fan interest.  Well behind football, and trails basketball and baseball.  Still ahead of auto racing and, yes, soccer too.

But at the 2010 Olympics, the Gold Medal hockey game between the US and Canada pulled in ridiculous ratings.  How ridiculous?

The last event of the Vancouver games turned into one of the biggest (non-N.F.L.) sports events in recent television history. The Canada-U.S.A. gold medal hockey game was seen by a huge audience of 27.6 million viewers, making it the most-watched hockey game on American television since two games in the 1980 games from Lake Placid, headed by the famous U.S. upset over the Soviet Union.

The 27.6 million viewers put the game ahead of such recent high-profile sports contests as the Masters golf tournament (14.3 million), the Daytona 500 (16 million viewers), the top game from last year’s N.B.A. Finals (16 million), the N.C.A.A. basketball final (17.6 million), Game 4 (the most watched) of the 2009 World Series (22.8 million) and the 2010 Rose Bowl (24 million).

If I tried to tell you that hockey was now bigger than college football, you'd laugh at me.  Of course, I couldn't say that with a straight face. I'm a hockey guy, but I know that hockey doesn't rate that highly.

Except when the team is wearing the red, white, and blue. Doing battle against another country, especially one that probably cares much, much more about the sport than we do. And probably with better talent than we have.

That gets our interest. That gets the casual sports fan or even some of the non-sports fan to watch. Even outside of prime time.  It's not the sport.  It's our patriotism.

If you want to use television ratings to compare interest level, use the ratings of the MLS to judge the interest level in soccer, not the World Cup.  Like last year, when ratings for the NHL were triple those of the MLS.

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