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Soccer ratings improve

World Cup numbers get bounce after 4 years

Surveying the numbers that show his network’s World Cup soccer coverage improved 18% compared with four years ago, ESPN senior VP of programming Mark Quenzel said, succinctly, “I’m pumped!”

Quenzel said the increase (a 1.1 average Nielsen rating for 24 live events vs. a 0.94 for 27 events four years ago) was all the more remarkable because the time-zone discrepancy was much more difficult this year, from South Korea, than it was four years ago, from France.

ESPN was aided by the surprise success of the U.S. team: the live cablecast of the U.S.-Mexico match scored a rating of 2.29 at 2:25 a.m. EDT on June 17.

ESPN’s sister network ABC never got the chance to telecast a U.S. match in a time period where lots of viewers are watching television, so it couldn’t take as much advantage of the U.S. team’s performance, said Loren Matthews, senior VP of programming for ABC Sports.

For the World Cup final from 6:30 to 9 a.m. EDT June 30 — a 2-0 victory by Brazil over Germany — ABC scored a 3.9 rating. The network added a 2.8 rating for the taped replay of the match from 12:30 to 3 p.m. EDT.

Although ABC and ESPN worked with Major League Soccer on the coverage of the matches and the sale of the advertising time, MLS shouldered the expense of production and sales. MLS also paid ABC, ESPN and ESPN 2 an undisclosed fee for the extensive time the networks made available for coverage.

The same contractual terms cover the next World Cup from Germany in 2006, as well as the Women’s World Cup from China in 2003.

ABC and ESPN hate the term “time buy,” but “that’s what it was,” said Rick Gentile, president of 24 Prods. and a former top network sports executive.

Gentile said he doesn’t expect any carryover of viewership to regular-season MLS games next year because soccer hasn’t entered the cultural bloodstream of the U.S. the way it has in the rest of the world.

But if fans start noticing athletic young American soccer players like Landon Donovan, who got the full media treatment last month (stints on Letterman and “Today,” among others), the MLS could add some eyeballs.

The U.S. team gave World Cup soccer the best platform it has ever had, said David Carter, a principal in the Los Angeles-based Sports Business Group. “But when so many of the games are played in the wee hours of the morning, it’s hard to build up an audience for the sport,” he added.

Could Donovan’s game help to propel the sport in the U.S.? Said a cynical Gentile: “Only if he starts dating Britney Spears.”

Univision paid $150 million for the Spanish-lingo TV exclusive rights to both the 2002 and 2006 cups plus Women’s World Cup tourney in 2003.

Given that it’s a six-year deal, it’s too early to say whether Univison got its money’s worth, according to Univision sports prexy David Downs.

However, the experience has been positive so far, he said, and advertisers are happy. Live broadcasts of the matches and a number of the tape-delayed broadcasts “outperformed the average ratings of regular programming for those time slots,” Downs said.

Univision raised the profile of its second broadcast net Telefutura (launched in January) and its cable net, Galavision, which is being repositioned.

“There’s a general perception that the Univision production was superior to that of ESPN and ABC,” Downs said. “It’s one of the first and only times that Univison has been compared favorably (with English-lingo coverage) — we’ve overcome the perception that Spanish-lingo television is second rate.”

The most popular match of the tourney for Univision was the June 17 Mexico-U.S. game, which aired at 11:15 p.m. PSTJune 16. It drew 4.2 million viewers, the highest viewership ever for any Spanish-lingo sports telecast among men, women and adults 18-34 and 18-49.

Univision claimed 42% more viewers than the competing broadcast on ESPN.

The final got an 18.8 Hispanic household rating anda 66% share, and was watched by2.88 million viewers.

Univision stations drew more viewers than ABCfor soccer coverage in Los Angeles, Miami, Houston, Chicago, Dallas, San Antonio and Phoenix.

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