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WORLD CUP SOCCER

Soccer Starts Scoring With U.S. Viewers

June 18, 2002|MEG JAMES and DANA CALVO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The U.S. soccer team upset Mexico with a 2-0 victory, but the most stunning "gooooooaaaaaaal" of this World Cup may belong to television networks, sports marketers and Major League Soccer.

Across Southern California, groggy fans stumbled into work Monday after staying up well past 1 a.m. to watch the game broadcast from South Korea. Preliminary ratings show it was the most watched soccer match ever for Los Angeles Spanish-language channel KMEX-TV.

National ratings from the U.S.-Mexico game won't be released until today. But those numbers are expected to easily top the 1 million viewers nationwide on average who have been watching the games while most people sleep. Some see the growing viewership as a sign that soccer is finally cutting across traditional cultural lines and coming of age in the United States.

"It's more than just crazy soccer fans. The numbers are too big for that," said Mark Quenzel, senior vice president for programming for ESPN, which is broadcasting the game for English-speaking audiences. "The ratings have far exceeded anything that we could have hoped for."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 21, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 7 inches; 264 words Type of Material: Correction
"Monday Night Football"--A story in Tuesday's Section A about World Cup viewership incorrectly stated average viewership for ABC's "Monday Night Football" as 4.9 million. Last season, average viewership was 16.9 million.

George Locke, a lifelong soccer fan, watches the 11:30 p.m. game, tunes in to Spanish-language highlights of the match he has just seen and then sets his alarm for the next game at dawn.

"All my friends, we're on the phone at 4 in the morning," said Locke, a 37-year-old Hollywood prop man who ends up napping during the day. "I'm talking to people in Texas and all through Los Angeles."

His wife, Max Mosher, and their 3-year-old son, Finn, are awake too, but not by choice. "If somebody scores a goal and I get excited, I'll yell and then I'll hear Finn crying and Max yelling to be quiet," Locke said. "I can't control myself."

Soccer still is dwarfed by powerhouse U.S. sports. ABC's "Monday Night Football," for example, last season drew an average 4.9 million viewers a week. But media executives say soccer is showing growth among broader audiences. The World Cup is drawing nearly as many U.S. viewers to its English-language broadcasts as to those in Spanish, according to Nielsen Media Research figures through Friday.

In recent years, networks and advertisers cautiously embraced soccer despite widespread indifference in the U.S. They had little choice. If interest in U.S. soccer ever neared the interest it enjoys worldwide, they reasoned, they'd be left behind.

That's why Univision, which owns KMEX-TV Channel 34, paid $150 million for U.S. Spanish-language broadcasting rights for the 2002 and 2006 games, even though it warned investors it expected to lose money on the deal.

"They're trying to define their franchise as being the go-to broadcaster for the World Cup, just as NBC is the go-to broadcaster for the Olympics," said media analyst David W. Miller.

The sport also took a chance on itself.

ESPN risked little on its deal. The sports network has a long-term relationship with Major League Soccer, which purchased the English-language U.S. broadcasting rights for about $50 million from a German media company that acquired them from soccer's governing body.

The league handled advertising itself for the games broadcast on ESPN. The sales pitch was easy: Introduce your product to a new international audience overseas, the swelling Latino population at home and, as a bonus, blossoming U.S. soccer fans.

Clearly, the strategic gamble paid off.

Advertisers such as Coca-Cola, MasterCard, Fuji film and Gillette spent more than $26 million each to become official sponsors of the World Cup.

The surge in popularity attracted more than a few latecomers--at a price.

DirecTV hadn't planned on advertising during the World Cup, but changed its mind last week. Travel Web site Expedia signed up on Monday for air time.

"It definitely was at a premium, but a premium that was definitely worth it," said Yolanda Macias, vice president of DirecTV's international services, which includes a Spanish-language channel.

Now Univision may break even. ESPN has established itself as the English-language channel to turn to for soccer. Advertisers couldn't be more pleased: Yahoo, for example, which runs the official Web site of the World Cup, has been visited more than 1 billion times.

"Advertisers see the potential," said Mark Abbott, chief operating officer for Major League Soccer in New York. "There are more than 35.3 million Hispanics in the U.S. And that's more than there are Canadians in Canada. Companies are sponsoring soccer to be able to reach that group. In many ways, we are a soccer nation now."

A key contributing factor to this year's World Cup fever was completely unexpected--the success of the U.S. team. It entered soccer's showpiece tournament as a 300-1 longshot. But with its victory over Mexico, the U.S. team advances to the quarterfinals, its best performance since the inaugural tournament 72 years ago.

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