Soccer Almanac: The explosion of soccer on TV

NEW YORK — This may be an apocryphal comment made by European visitors and remembered by American soccer fans always looking for the silver lining, but there’s a significant symbolism to it:

You can watch more live soccer on TV here than in Europe.

It’s probably true. Today, US audiences have their choice of three soccer-specific channels, a regular presence on the ESPN networks and four Spanish-language channels that regularly show live matches. Then there are the various satellite channels, such as RAI (Italy), TV5Monde (France), TV Globo Internacional (Brazil) and that glorious section of DirectTV dedicated to the beautiful game.

How many soccer games do you watch each week?

1-3 60%
4+ 39%
0 2%

Plus, starting in 2012, NBC and the new NBC Sports Network will join the party when they begin broadcasting MLS and US national team games.

In a typical week these days, a US-based soccer fan gets to choose from upwards of 50 live matches on cable TV alone (i.e., not on satellite).

Life was not always so clover-filled for soccer fans. Two or three decades ago, finding soccer on the tube was as likely as finding a baseball game in Uganda.

CBS broadcast the NASL for a few years in the 1970s, including airing Pelé’s debut for the New York Cosmos in 1975. The lead broadcaster on the 1976 Soccer Bowl was Jon Miller, whose voice eventually brought him an induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Miller was also the play-by-play man for a network called TVS — a group of affiliated channels akin to today’s Comcast network — who covered the NASL in 1977 and 1978.

ABC broadcast the NASL in 1979 and 1980, with Jim McKay on play-by-play and longtime Soccer America writer Paul Gardner doing color commentary.

And after that, for all intents and purposes, the game disappeared, particularly on the national level. The fledgling ESPN and USA networks showed a few games here and there, including random indoor games and the occasional FA Cup final, but for the most part, soccer fans were forced to find satellite dishes at the local Irish pub or make due with PBS’s brilliant Soccer Made in Germany.

Yes, at one time, PBS was the champion of soccer on the airwaves.

How things have changed. And soccer fans are taking advantage of this bounty.

The 2010 World Cup 2010 between Spain and the Netherlands was viewed by 24.3 million people in the US and another 5.8 million in Canada. Nearly 13.5 million people tuned into ESPN for the 2011 Women’s World Cup final between the United States and Japan.

I warn my kids about the evils of too much TV and then I watch 12 straight hours of soccer. They've yet to learn the word 'hypocrite'.
— ESPN's Alexi Lalas, via Twitter

Much of soccer’s growing popularity in the United States can be attributed to the success off the US men’s national team. The numbers don’t lie: The USMNT’s 1990 World Cup opener against Czechloslovakia was watched by about 858,000 people on TBS; their round of 16 match against Ghana in 2010 drew more than 15 million on ABC.

Based on the North American Soccer Almanac’s survey, soccer fans here are consuming more soccer than ever in more ways than ever.

Fully 56 percent of respondents say they subscribe to particular TV channels “specifically in order to watch soccer.” Nearly 40 percent of respondents say they watch four or more matches a week.

They are also watching matches online or on mobile devices. Eighty-nine percent of respondents say they watch soccer online, while more than a quarter of respondents now catch matches on their iPhones, Androids and other mobile devices.

In short, soccer was once nowhere to be found. Today, you can find it — literally — everywhere.