“I have not moved for nearly 7 hours. I have felt all the emotions. I’m spent. And I’m mad that it’s taken me until my 42nd year to appreciate this. #WordCup2018”
That tweet came from ESPN personality Michelle Beadle last Sunday after the Round of 16 match between Croatia and Denmark became the second match of the day to end in a penalty kick shootout. Hours earlier, the upstart hosts from Russia had ousted 2010 FIFA World Cup champion Spain on penalties in one of the biggest shocks of the tournament.
The tourney concluded yesterday with France winning its second World Cup title with a 4-2 victory over the upstart Croatians. It was the highest scoring final since England defeated West Germany by the same score in 1966.
It was a fitting end to a competition that was electric, almost from the outset. And US sports viewers took notice. According to the Sporting News, the quarterfinal match nine days ago between Russia and Croatia drew the largest American World Cup quarterfinal television audience since 1990. It outdrew the one quarterfinal match that the US participated in since then, a controversial 1-0 defeat to eventual runner-up Germany in 2002. In context, that World Cup was played in South Korea and Japan, which is 13 hours ahead of Eastern Time. That match started at 7:30 in the morning on the east coast and even earlier across the country, making it hard for even diehard soccerheads to watch at the time.
The Croatia/England semifinal on Wednesday was the third most watched World Cup semifinal aired on American TV, despite a mid-afternoon start time, and is now the most American streaming viewers of any World Cup match in history. And when the Fox viewership numbers for yesterday's final come out later today, it is expected to be among the most watched finals here in the US.
It also is changing the narrative on soccer viewership and viability here. Until the quarterfinals, ratings had been down significantly from four years ago, 36% according to Neilsen. Take out the four matches that the US Men’s National Team played four years ago, and the ratings were still down 19% through the Round of 16. The US not qualifying for the first time since 1986 was seen as the big culprit for the ratings dive. The US World Cup television rights holder also switched since the last World Cup. ABC/ESPN had held the American broadcast rights since 1994. Those rights shifted to Fox this year.
Soccer is not a sport that many like right away. Much like classical music, you don’t really find your love for it until you gain an appreciation for it. That’s hard to do when you are only invested in your own team, because that’s probably all you are watching. But, without the American side in Russia this go-round, fans have casually tuned in and been treated to last second winners, upsets galore, and some of the most entertaining matches ever staged at a World Cup.