As I write this, in the second week of the tournament, the 2014 FIFA World Cup is making U.S. media history. For the two networks airing the tournament, Univision and ESPN, the matches are setting viewership records. The networks netted a combined average of 7.5 million viewers during the first 11 matches. During the opening match of the tournament, the two networks drew a larger average audience than any World Cup opener in the past 20 years. For the match between the U.S. and Ghana, the average audience across both networks was the second largest for a U.S. opening-round match in history. The largest was in 2010, but that match was aired on a Saturday on ABC, whereas this time it was on a Monday and in English on ESPN.
On social media, the tournament is garnering unprecedented engagement. On Facebook, the 2014 World Cup garnered 459 million interactions from 141 million people in its first week. During the same period, on Twitter, the matches generated tens of millions of tweets. Meanwhile on Google+, Instagram, Tumblr, and Vine, millions of people are creating their own content and engaging with professionally generated content to express their enthusiasm about the tournament that generated more social buzz in its first week than the Sochi 2014 Olympics, 2014 Super Bowl, and 2014 Oscars combined.
A deeper dive into the data might provide some clues as to what might be driving this tremendous upsurge in excitement. During the first 11 matches, Univision (in addition to its simulcast on Univision Deportes Network) averaged 3.8 million viewers while ESPN, ESPN2, and ABC had a combined average of 3.74 million. On Facebook, Univision Deportes posts drove 92% more engagement than ESPN posts on a per-post-per-fan basis.
Additionally, during the first match of the tournament (Brazil versus Croatia), Univision topped the Nielsen Twitter TV Ratings (NTTR) in terms of unique audience on Twitter, ranking No. 1 across all cable and broadcast networks. The fact that Univision's numbers have been so impressive is especially remarkable given that the U.S. Hispanic community constitutes only 17% of the population. Could it be that U.S. Hispanics are drawing more people to the beautiful game?
One could argue that the reason Univision draws more of an audience is because it's making every single match available over the air on broadcast, while Disney (which owns ABC and ESPN) is spreading its coverage across broadcast and cable on ABC and ESPN. There is also the fact that Hispanics constitute a much larger percentage of U.S. soccer fans. Nielsen reports, for example, that U.S. Hispanics comprise 34% of the audience for Major League Soccer. However, neither of these factors explains the explosion in the popularity of the World Cup overall. What this phenomenon suggests is that the Hispanic community's passion for soccer is having an impact on mainstream U.S. sports culture. U.S. Hispanics are igniting the mainstream popularity of soccer among non-Hispanics through their passion for the sport.
Here are some observations from social media that support this hypothesis:
Watching the #WorldCup in español is a must! So passionate! Love my culture #FIFA2014 gracias @Univision
I always like watching the FIFA in @Univision. They are more passionate about the sport. Its better in Spanish. ?I love my people #ImHispanic
Looks like @Univision is the only way I will be able to catch World Cup soccer today. I don't need to understand in order to enjoy!
The 2014 FIFA World Cup is already generating landmark TV viewership and feverish social media activity. As is evidenced in these tweets, coupled with the groundbreaking performance of U.S. Spanish-language media associated with the tournament, it appears that U.S. Hispanics are the motivating force behind the frenzy. The sports landscape in the U.S. has changed-much to the delight of the expanding crowd of U.S. soccer fans. Advertisers and media professionals would do well to take note.