You know soccer has hit the big time in the U.S. when it's at the center of a ratings dispute between ESPN and CBS Sports. The spat stems from ESPN saying earlier this week that the 1.1 million people who watched at least some of the U.S. soccer team's 1-0 World Cup win over Algeria Wednesday represented the largest audience ever for a sports event online -- beating the Duke-Butler NCAA championship basketball game earlier this year.
But CBS on Friday called for a yellow card on ESPN, pointing to data showing that the BYU-Florida NCAA tournament game actually had a slightly larger audience than the U.S.-Algeria match. The figures from content-delivering network Akamai, which handles video streaming for CBS, show the BYU-Florida game on March 18 drew 1,115,097 viewers compared to the 1.1 million for the U.S.-Algeria contest. (The Duke-Butler game had an audience of 557,433).
"It was incorrect for ESPN to assume the Duke-Butler championship game, which was viewed by 48 million people on CBS Television in prime time, would produce the largest online number for the tournament," said CBS in a statement. "Unfortunately, we were never contacted by ESPN to confirm that the Duke-Butler game was our largest single game from the 2010 tournament before they reported it."
ESPN didn't respond to a request for comment Friday. But the network Thursday said the U.S.-Algeria game, which the U.S. won in dramatic fashion on a closing-minutes goal from Landon Donovan, had also set other viewing records for the sports network. The TV audience of 6.6 million was the most for a non-holiday morning telecast ever for ESPN, and ESPN.com set a record with 1.7 million concurrent users logging in to check score updates or other news on June 23, beating the previous high by 42%.
ESPN Mobile also had its highest-traffic day ever, with 650,000 watching the U.S.-Algeria game on handheld devices. Audience data coming in from ESPN -- which has U.S. broadcast rights to the World Cup in South Africa -- and other sources suggest that the 2010 tournament is generating an unprecedented level of interest among Americans.
That's in no small part because the U.S. team is having its best showing since the 2002 World Cup, coming back to tie or win each of its three matches in the group stage. Former President Bill Clinton, who was on hand for the game against Algeria, is far from the only newly minted U.S. soccer fan in recent days.
Hitwise released data yesterday showing visits to soccer sites on Wednesday were up 22% from the day before and that visits to ESPN.com were up 45%. Among soccer sites, Yahoo's World Cup 2010 site claimed the most traffic, with 33.3% of visits.
Yahoo touted its World Cup audience Friday, highlighting comScore figures showing that its section dedicated to the tournament drew 7.9 million unique visitors from June 7 from June 13 during the first three days of play. The Web portal also said Yahoo Sports drew more than 18.5 million visitors during that period, outpacing both FIFA.com and ESPN's overall traffic numbers at 2.8 million and 13.7 million, respectively.
Another company benefiting from surging interest in the World Cup is mobile TV service Flo TV. The Qualcomm unit is offering subscribers all 64 of ESPN's World Cup match broadcasts on its Flo TV devices and AT&T handsets. The company is also sponsoring the Fox Soccer Channel's "Ticket To South Africa" program for the World Cup.
During the first five days of the event, Flo TV said total viewing minutes for the service jumped 39% compared to the prior week. The World Cup also accounts for three of the top five viewing days on Flo TV.
The spike in online viewing caused by World Cup fever has even caused some problems. A surge in traffic during last Friday's U.S.-Slovenia match led to a crash in Univision.com's live stream of the game.
With the U.S. taking on Ghana in the second round of the tournament on Saturday, ratings for the game across media could set new records. But given that more people will have the chance to watch the game on TV because they won't be working, the TV audience could grow at the expense of online and mobile traffic.