DOHA, Qatar — Now the U.S. men's national soccer team recedes into the background of American sports for the next 3 1/2 years.
While the Americans' four World Cup matches averaged 12.2 million viewers on Fox, their 27 games on rated English-language networks from the start of 2020 through this fall averaged 668,000, according to Nielsen.
The U.S. team averaged 2.45 million during the World Cup on Telemundo, double its 1.02 million average for 40 matches on Spanish-language networks during the three years ahead of the tournament, Nielsen said. In that stretch, American games have been aired on an alphabet soup of networks with start times ranging from 8 a.m. Eastern to 10 p.m. while taking place in locations ranging from California to Europe.
"Soccer has become the most bewildering sport to follow on television," said former ESPN president John Skipper, now CEO of Meadowlark Media.
He cited various networks for the U.S. national team, the English Premier League, the German Bundesliga, Spanish La Liga and European Champions League, some drawing more viewers than Major League Soccer.
"Can you imagine European basketball being somewhat more popular than the NBA?" Skipper said. "We are as Americans just used to thinking that we're the world leaders in the sports that we like. And here, we're not the world leaders."
Soccer is seen by just a fraction of the audience of the NFL, which said it averaged 17.1 million on television and digital for the 2021 regular season and drew 42.1 million alone for the Dallas Cowboys-New York Giants game on Thanksgiving.
Just 226,000 viewers tuned in to the English-language broadcast of the Americans' final World Cup warmup match in September against Saudi Arabia, with 159,000 more watching with Spanish commentary. The match play-by-play and color commentator were 6,000 miles away in a Los Angeles studio, and no staff reporters from U.S. newspapers were present, though there were three from major online organizations.
Still, the men's games were viewed more than those for the U.S. women's national team, which averaged 295,000 for English and Spanish telecasts during the same three-year period, according to Nielsen. Like the men, the women's ratings soar during their World Cup.
Broadcasts, some sold by the U.S. Soccer Federation and others by the regional governing body CONCACAF, were spread across ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNews, Fox and Fox Sports 1 in English along with the unrated CBS Sports Network and the digital platform Paramount+. Spanish coverage was on Univision, TUDN and UniMás.
Asked Wednesday to discuss TV viewership, the USSF said it could not comment because officials were traveling. The USSF estimated ahead of the World Cup that 29 reporters from 10 U.S. newspaper organizations were credentialed for the tournament, along with 35 from 13 online outlets and seven freelance writers.
After covering six straight World Cups, the Miami Herald did not send its soccer reporter to the 2018 tournament in Russia or to this year's World Cup in Qatar. In a time of shrinking travel budgets, the NFL, NBA, MLB and the University of Miami are priorities for that newspaper.
"For us, it's a matter of interest, for better or for worse," said John Devine, the Herald's executive sports editor. "Down here, we get great World Cup ratings, but it's not necessarily for the U.S. team. We have so many followers from Central (America), South America and the Caribbean, but it kind of gets lost in the shuffle in terms of interest."
The United States drew 173,915 for its seven home qualifiers, an average of 24,845, with six of those matches in Major League Soccer venues where ticket distribution could be better controlled.
Media access to players is restricted, disincentivizing coverage. While the major U.S. sports have significant pregame access periods and require locker rooms be open to media after games, the USSF keeps its locker room closed to reporters, citing European soccer standards. U.S. men's coach Gregg Berhalter held only nine media availability sessions during the team's 20 days in Qatar, and Christian Pulisic, the top American player, was available to traveling writers for only 3 1/2 minutes during the team's nine-day September training camp.
Daniel Sillman, CEO of Stephen Ross' Relevent Sports Group — which promotes the International Champions Cup preseason tournament in the United States involving European clubs — said the U.S. men's lack of success at the sport's top level impacts interest.
"We haven't produced at the end of the day," he said. "Americans are a very fickle audience. Americans like to see the best of the best, and the best of the best are on the French national team, the Portuguese national team and Argentina, Brazil. Americans want to see (Kylian) Mbappé and (Erling) Haaland and (Lionel) Messi and (Cristiano) Ronaldo and (Karim) Benzema, and we just don't have enough talent here."