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SPORTS MEDIA

US soccer in World Cup a ratings success

A few ticks past the 90th minute, when it was apparent that Germany’s 1-0 lead over the United States in Thursday’s World Cup match would hold up and permit both teams to survive the dreaded Group of Death with their soccer lives intact, Ian Darke suggested an interesting approach to celebrating — by sustenance.

“Everybody back in the United States can have a celebratory lunch,’’ said Darke, ESPN’s superb play-by-play commentator, “a late one on the East Coast, an early one maybe on the West.”

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Darke’s amusing salute — his tone certainly seemed to suggest such a lunch could include a beverage or two — offered not just a thought of food, but food for thought.

In the aftermath of the US-Germany match, there were two compelling questions from a sports media perspective:

1. Will the household ratings and viewership numbers approach or even surpass the record numbers for last Sunday’s US-Portugal draw, the most-watched soccer match ever stateside.

2. How many people in total watched the match, including those at bars, restaurants, and city viewing parties, groups that aren’t accounted for by Nielsen?

Only the former will have an answer any time soon. Nielsen’s preliminary “overnight” ratings, which measure the 56 largest markets, will be available late Friday morning. It will be fascinating to discover whether the ratings and viewership for the US-Germany match approaches the record numbers from US-Portugal, which drew a 9.6 household rating (or the percentage of households turned into the match) and averaged 18.22 million viewers on ESPN. It was the most-viewed program — excluding the NFL and college football — in ESPN’s history. And another 6.5 million viewers tuned in on Univision.

The ESPN rating for the US-Portugal match built on a 6.3 share and an average of 11.1 million viewers for the American’s World Cup opener against Ghana. That might suggest an upward trend in terms of interest, but the US-Portugal match was broadcast at 6 p.m. on a Sunday, a far more appealing timeslot than the Monday, June 16 opener or Thursday’s noon start during the work week. If the US-Germany numbers approach the US-Portugal viewership, ESPN executives will be doing cartwheels through the streets of Recife.

Which segues to the second question from above — how do you measure all of those presumed millions watching from somewhere other than their homes? Sports Illustrated media columnist Richard Deitsch suggested that the viewership number for US-Portugal was probably closer to 30 million between ESPN and Univision should all of the out-of-home, probably-bellied-up-to-a-bar viewers somehow be accurately measured.

As it turns out, ESPN’s research suggests that’s a very reasonable estimate. A network spokesman said that independent research firms are commissioned to find out how many out-of-home viewers tuned in. Information is unlikely to be available until the World Cup has concluded. But for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa — anyone miss the buzz of the vuvuzelas? — it was determined that out-of-home viewing added 23 percent to the overall audience.

By any measure, the US matches have a massive following — the WatchESPN app briefly went on the fritz Thursday with an unprecedented peak concurrent viewership of 1.4 million tuned in to watch the match. That will only grow with advancement to the knockout round, and it presents a dilemma, one ESPN has handled with increasing deftness:

How does the network balance appealing to the hard-core fan as well as the relative soccer novice? As someone who admittedly leans closer to the latter category, I’ve been impressed with ESPN’s balance of analysis, particularly Thursday. Analyst Alexi Lalas took some lumps after the US-Portugal tie when he seemed to retreat from criticizing the players complicit in allowing Portugal to tie the match in the final seconds of extra time. The criticism was deserved, not because US sports fans demand the identification of the goat, but because more casual fans genuinely desired a contextual, insightful explanation of what went wrong and why.

It never really came Sunday. But Thursday, with an assist from anchor Bob Ley’s usual gravitas, Lalas was downright exceptional in offering concise perspective not only on the US’s performance against Germany, but what advancing out of the Group of Death means in terms of how the team is perceived within the sport.

“There’s not going to be this watershed moment. And even if you win the World Cup, people will call it just an aberration, some sort of crazy fluke,’’ Lalas said. “But it’s a succession of moments, and certainly every four years, opportunities. And this team, with Jurgen Klinsmann, took the opportunity and used it. And regardless of what happens now it’s going to be a positive reflection on these players, on this team, on Jurgen Klinsmann, and on soccer. That’s a good thing. Both domestically, in terms of how some people view the game, and internationally, with a greater relevancy and a greater credibility.”

Perhaps the World Cup isn’t for everyone who considers themselves a conventional sports fan in the United States. One diehard’s nuance is a novice’s boredom, and dismissive commentary such as this tweet Thursday from WEEI’s John Dennis still speaks to an element of the audience:

“Honest to God. Can SOMEBODY tell me when the EXCITING part begins? God Awful Dull. #sorrySOCCERphants”

The skepticism of the sport tends to skew toward older demographics — the ratings for younger viewers are massive. But ignoring the appeal of this is foolish if you work in sports media, especially in New England. Boston (11.5), Hartford/New Haven (11.3), and Providence (11.2) were the fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-rated markets for the US-Portugal match, and the order should be similar for US-Germany.

For the most part, the New England media has recognized this — even on sports radio, which has always seemed particularly soccer-resistant. WEEI made the savvy decision to broadcast the US-Germany match Thursday, shrinking its “Middays with MFB” program to 10 a.m.-noon rather than the usual 10-2. Most programs have dedicated more than cursory interest to the World Cup, with The Sports Hub’s “Felger and Mazz” and WEEI’s “Dale and Holley” programs giving it serious and well-considered attention.

The World Cup’s ratings success — and the recognition of that success locally — makes another string of Ian Darke’s words Thursday come to mind.

“They’ve defied a few critics, the United States,’’ Darke said.

Around here, the same could be said for the sport itself.

Chad Finn can be reached at finn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globechadfinn.
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