Who's going to win the World Cup? In Los Angeles, Spanish-language TV station KMEX appears the frontrunner.
Over the soccer tournament's second weekend, KMEX-TV (Channel 34), owned by Century City-based Univision Communications Inc., had 108 percent more viewers in the key 18-49 age bracket than KABC-TV (Channel 7), which carried the games in English. The weekday Mexican matches drew big numbers, but weekend games of Brazil-Australia and USA-Italy drew 448,000 and 406,000 viewers respectively in the 18-49 category, according to data compiled by Nielsen Media Research Inc.
"The matches thus far are posting higher audience levels than the 1998 and 2002 World Cups," said KMEX in a statement. "The remaining 2006 World Cup soccer matches promise to deliver amazing numbers."
But in the Nielsen game, even second-place stations can win big. KABC attracted 223,000 viewers for the Brazil-Australia match, not a bad showing for 8:30 on a Sunday morning.
The U.S.-Italy match drew a 5.9 rating for KABC, worth about 325,000 viewers. "We all know that soccer is national sport in Mexico and most countries in Latin America, but we are holding well with KMEX," said Therese Gamba, programming director. "It shows that there is a strong appetite for soccer in this market."
Dennis Aimino, KABC's director of research, points out that Nielsens don't include out-of-home viewing such as bars or even workplaces, which figure highly in sports viewership. That, along with the large increases in numbers since the 2002 World Cup, led him to conclude "soccer has finally taken off."
On the national field, the Spanish-language network Univision averaged 2.3 million viewers during the first 14 games in the 64-game tournament. That compares to 2.1 million viewers on the combined network and cable channels ABC and ESPN2. In the 18-49 demographic, Univision delivered an average of 1.4 million sets of eyeballs compared to 1.2 million on ABC/ESPN2. Both ABC and ESPN2 are units of Burbank-based Walt Disney Co.
ESPN spokesman Bill Hofheimer said that for the first 22 telecasts in the Cup, ESPN2 averaged a 1.2 rating and a total audience of 1.4 million viewers. That represents a 119 percent increase from the early-game draw for the 2002 World Cup.
Not surprisingly, matches featuring Team USA attracted the most viewers. ABC's Saturday telecast of the United States' 1-1 tie with Italy averaged a 4.3 rating, reaching an estimated 6.7 million viewers. ESPN2's highest rating came from the U.S.-Czech Republic match, a blowout loss for the Americans. It registered a 2.4 rating, making it the highest-rated soccer telecast ever on ESPN2 and the network's highest-rated telecast so far in 2006.
The elimination of Team USA following its 2-1 loss to Ghana poses a challenge, but won't necessarily be an audience killer. Brazil and other traditional soccer powers have produced good numbers for ESPN2, and suddenly the Cup faces less competition for viewers. With the NBA Finals and Stanley Cup Finals both in the history books, sports fans have more time for soccer.
"We still expect ratings strength because there are still some world powers that have strong followings," said Hofheimer. "Everyone was bullish on this World Cup, but when you're looking at 100 percent increases, at this point it has surpassed expectations."
The tournament continues until July 9.
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