European Club Soccer's US Popularity Comparable To NHL, Says Report

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 01: John Terry of Chelsea is closed down by Wayne Rooney of Manchester United during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on March 1, 2011 in London, England. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Both Fox and ESPN are reporting massive increases in the popularity of European club soccer with American audiences, according to a report by MarketWatch. MarketWatch has highlighted the a key UEFA Champions League quarter-final match between Premier League giants Chelsea FC and Manchester United as potentially the United States' most-watched club soccer game of the year.

Thanks to the success of the 2010 World Cup (which averaged 3.3M viewers per game in the US), both major providers have seen huge gains in their viewership, with the Premier League now directly comparable to regular-season NHL audiences despite being at a major disadvantage: Soccer is often shown in the very early hours of the weekend and Fox Soccer Channel (FSC), which broadcasts the vast majority of league matches, is only available in 40% of homes. FSC has reported a 75% growth in total audience between the 2009/10 season and the current campaign.

Meanwhile, ESPN, which shows far fewer matches with a much wider reach than FSC, has also reported impressive growth. Last season, only April's game between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford broke through the 500,000 viewers barrier, while three matches in the 2010/11 season have already eclipsed that mark, with Scott Guglielmino, senior vice president of programming, crediting the strong performance of the World Cup in winning over fans.

With the Champions League following the Premier League's lead in terms of growth, the rapid rise of Major League Soccer and alternative leagues such as Italy's Serie A increasingly available for US consumption, we may only be at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the popularity of the sport in North America, as impressive as the gains so far have been. Soccer is no longer 'the next big thing' in the United States - it's already here.

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