The comparison isn't perfectly fair. The NHL Finals, though exciting, were close to a foregone conclusion after three games. The NBA Finals, while compelling in their own way, were also a lopsided affair. And the U.S. Open? We can't remember being less interested in one.
U.S. vs. Ghana on Monday, meanwhile, had much going for it: four days of previous World Cup matches and many months of speculation leading up to it; a glorious time slot, at least for the Central and Eastern time zones (5 p.m. here, 6 there); and the spectacle of a once-every-four-years event.
It is still noteworthy, however, to look at the TV ratings as they relate to one another. The overnight rating for U.S. vs. Ghana, which was on ESPN and not over-the-air TV like Games 5 of the NBA and NHL Finals and the final day of the U.S. Open, was 7.0. That number by itself is more than double the U.S. Open's 3.3 number and nearly double the NHL Game 5's 3.7 number.
The NBA pulled a 10.3 for Game 5, better than soccer's number on ESPN. But that 7.0 figure for the World Cup does not count the numbers streaming online or watching on Univision in the U.S. If those viewers are factored in, we are fairly certain more people -- probably a lot more -- were watching U.S. vs. Ghana than Spurs vs. Heat.
[Update: A spokesman from ESPN Communications checked in with this: The overnight rating for Game 5 was an 11.7. So the natural comparison would be 11.7 vs. 7.0. Also, ESPN3 streamed over 500k unique visitors for Game 5, plus a couple hundred thousand more on ESPN Deportes. So the multi-platform audience applies to both events. That's a fair point, and it should be noted that we were mearly guessing the ESPN/Univision/streaming numbers from USA/Ghana would top the NBA, though we don't have the full figures yet].
We offer these facts not as evidence that "soccer has arrived in the United States," since soccer has been alive and well here for quite some time. We are also not numb to the notion that the World Cup is a special event, much like the Olympics, and that we see such massive spikes in events like figure skating and swimming every four years before those sports go back to relative obscurity.
We just wanted to acknowledge that last Monday's match delivered a huge TV number and that those tuned in were rewarded.