One of the stunning realizations around the 2010 FIBA World Championship was that so few people in the United States actually cared. The championship game, which saw Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose lead Team USA against the host Turkey for the Americans' first FIBA gold since 1998, was seen by only 900,000 viewers in the United States. I'm pretty sure NBA TV gets that many viewers for its periodic showings of The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh.
On Friday, FIBA put out a press release touting TV successes from the group play. And there are a lot of good numbers ... from the rest of the world. Greece, Puerto Rico, Finland, Croatia and most of all Spain saw nice fat ratings in the opening round. But in the United States, home of the prohibitive favorite?
Fiba World Cup
Fiba World Cup
In the United States, the games of the defending champions USA against Finland and Turkey drew audiences of just over one million and 1.3 million viewers respectively. This is more than double the audiences that tuned in to watch afternoon coverage of the US Open (tennis). Additionally, these figures measure up very favourably with ESPN's baseball coverage with their MLB Monday, Wednesday and Sunday Night games on ESPN and ESPN 2 which have an average audience of 1.09 million.
Congratulations, USA Basketball: you beat afternoon coverage of the second and third rounds of tennis, America's 11th most popular sport. (Harris Interactive's annual "favorite sports" poll regularly ranks tennis below everything but bowling, swimming, women's soccer and women's golf.)
Here's some context. About 1.3 million American viewers tuned in to see Team USA beat Turkey. That's out of 314 million Americans, so about 0.4 percent of Americans watched that game. Turkey managed to have 1 million viewers itself despite a population of 74 million and, based on what the internet and common sense tell us, far fewer television households. So 1.3 percent of Turks watched the game, a rate four times as high as that of the United States.
This isn't anyone's fault per se. It's no kind of outrage. And admittedly, these games are on in the middle of the day in the United States, right as football season begins and starting at the beginning of a holiday weekend when it's exceedingly popular to go outside.
It's just a stunning reality that some of the best players in the world, with unique combinations we'll never see at the NBA level, playing for their country's pride against a good opponent, barely outdraws reruns of The Pioneer Woman and a random Spongebob episode in the 18-49 demographic! By and large, Americans just do not care about the FIBA World Cup.
As the league debates the role of NBA players in the tournament in the future, that matters.