Best: New Yorkers embracing World Cup more than in most TV markets

Zlatan Ljubijankic of Slovenia and Jay Demerit of Zlatan Ljubijankic of Slovenia and Jay Demerit of the U.S. battle for the ball in the Group C match, Friday. (June 18, 2010) Photo Credit: Getty Images

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted on Sept.

Sure, New York is a hell of a sports town. But its diversity and myriad distractions make it a television ratings also-ran for most major events.

From the Super Bowl (51st among 56 major markets in 2010) to the college football and basketball title games (54th and 48th) to the NBA Finals (29th), New York often greets big games with a big yawn.

Not so the World Cup.

Through Sunday's games, New York ranks third on ABC and ESPN with an average of 3.4 percent of homes, behind only Miami and Washington.

Given that percentage and the 7.4 million homes in the market - the largest in the United States - the area has been a major force behind national ratings that are up about 60 percent over 2006.

$relatedItem.caption

And that's only for English-language TV. Univision is averaging an additional 232,000 viewers in New York for its Spanish-language coverage.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

None of this is a surprise to experts. Glenn Enoch, ESPN's VP of integrated media research, said New York ranked first in the ratings for the 2008-09 UEFA season and is a hotbed of soccer interest.

He cited a 2009 ESPN poll in which New York ranked seventh among the top 50 markets in people who called themselves international soccer fans (39.3 percent) and second when only non-Hispanics were counted.

But New York is far from alone in embracing the tournament this year.

ESPN set the tone by assuming it was covering the biggest sports event on Earth rather than explaining it was doing so, and American soccer fans have followed suit, letting the games speak for themselves.

$relatedItem.caption

Interest in the United States remains a fraction of what it is for what we call football. And soccer mostly has failed to break through the brick wall of sports talk radio.

But when the United States and England play simultaneous win-and-in games Wednesday morning, much of the nation will be riveted.

That is in part thanks to the publicity generated first by a freak goal that gave the Americans an upset tie with England, then by Friday's controversial tie with Slovenia in which the go-ahead goal was disallowed.

(Not to mention non-U.S. news such as noisy vuvuzelas, epic upsets and the entire French team channeling Allen Iverson and boycotting practice.)

Even though it might cost some ratings points, it has helped that the United States' games against Slovenia and Algeria fell on weekdays, fostering a shared experience in offices and schools.

$relatedItem.caption

Even without fully accounting for out-of-home viewing, U.S.-Slovenia averaged 5.2 million viewers, the third most ever for a World Cup match on ABC/ESPN and the most for a group play game.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

The workday time slots also have helped send people to ESPN3.com (formerly ESPN360.com), which totaled 798,111 unique viewers live and on-demand for the Slovenia game.

"We felt the time period of the games would drive people to non-TV means of following the games,'' Enoch said. "If they're not going to a bar at 7 in the morning, they can go to their computers.''

Enoch noted Americans are more willing than ever to watch games that do not involve the U.S. team, and ESPN has sought to downplay the importance of the United States advancing out of group play.

But there is no denying the obvious: A loss Wednesday would mute the World Cup buzz like a vuvuzela stuffed with tapioca. The stakes are part of the fun, though, and why so many of us will be watching.

Subscribe to Newsday’s sports newsletter for stories, photos and videos about your favorite New York teams plus national sports news and events.

You also may be interested in: