Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Fun with numbers, World Cup edition

Decrying "lazy journalism" is normally the domain of anonymous Internet commentators, and usually I am loath to rake fellow media members over the coals, but this foofery cannot be allowed to stand. Lindsay Dunsmuir of Reuters took the results of an online poll of 1,400 American adults and vomited out this little gem -- "Two in three Americans do not plan to follow soccer's World Cup".

Oh, where to begin? Are we supposed to be shocked that most Americans don't want to spend their summer watching soccer? Did I miss some watershed moment where the majority of Americans were supposed to agree to embrace soccer? I would wager that most Americans aren't sports fans of any stripe, so the fact that most of them don't want to watch a soccer tournament with mostly foreign teams can hardly be a surprise.

Now for that supposedly shocking two-thirds figure. At last count, there were about 315 million Americans, so while 210 million of them will pass on the World Cup, that still means 105 million of them will follow the tournament! This year's Super Bowl, the most-watched television show in US history, pulled in a slightly higher 111.5 million viewers. If you took those 105 million Americans and made them their own country, they'd be the 12th-largest in the world, in between Mexico and the Philippines. The article also states "[o]nly 7 percent said they anticipated following it closely" -- in other words, 22 million Americans plan to follow the World Cup closely. Do you know the filthy, unspeakable things advertisers would do to have the attention of 22 million Americans for a solid month?

US broadcasters paid $1.1 billion for the rights to broadcast the World Cup, and corporations don't throw around that kind of cash unless they know they'll get a return on their investment. Audiences for US games at the 2010 World Cup beat out those from the World Series, NBA finals and Stanley Cup finals, and they even compared favorably with the average rating for an NFL regular-season game. But I guess all those facts and figures pale in comparison to the expert analysis dug up by our friend Lindsay, who quotes a Colombian living in Houston and a housewife in Phoenix who gave up soccer for volleyball after junior high. After all, this is America -- land of the free, home of the heartfelt anecdote.

I don't know Ms. Dunsmuir and would hesitate to guess as to her motives for such shoddy work. Her profile lists her as a contributor to Reuters personal finance, so you'd hope she would have a better grasp of numbers and the context in which they exist. Maybe she just had this batch of data thrown at her and was told to make a story out of it. Such instances are hardly unheard of these days, be it for wire services or independent publications. Then again, her only other Reuters byline this year was on March 20, and before that were two poll-based articles in August 2013, so it doesn't appear as though she's overloaded with work.

Regardless, this little bit of attempted sensationalism doesn't merit a great deal more thought. Soccer fans will go back to their favorite leagues before getting caught up in World Cup fever, while the majority of people in the United States (and the world) will continue blissfully not caring about soccer. The fact that two-thirds of Americans won't follow the World Cup doesn't worry me -- slow and steady growth has always been the way forward in the Major League Soccer era, and if America does ever become a soccer-first nation, it will take generations, not one or two good tournaments or big-name signings. What is more worrying is that a respectable organization such as Reuters let through an article so obviously flimsy and lacking in context. Attempting to generate clicks with "shocking" poll results might help you meet your byline count for the day, but it doesn't do the public or the cause of journalism any favors.

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