U.S. World Cup Hopes Push TV Ratings to Near-Olympics Level

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Nearly 25 million viewers in the United States watched Sunday’s World Cup match between the U.S. men’s national team and the Portuguese national team. That is well above the 16 million who watched the U.S. team’s first game against Ghana. The previous TV viewing record for a soccer match was 17.9 million viewers for the women’s World Cup championship match between the United States and China in 1999.

ESPN, which is owned by Walt Disney Co. (NYSE: DIS), and Univision combined to post the big viewer numbers, with ESPN garnering 18.2 million viewers and Univision getting 6.5 million. The totals do not include 500,000 viewers who streamed the ESPN broadcast or the viewers of the Univision stream — which is free and did not require a pay-TV subscription to watch.

The 18.2 million people who watched the match on ESPN is more than the 18 million total who viewed the fifth and final game of this year’s NBA playoffs between Miami and San Antonio. And it is more than the average of 14.9 million viewers for the last baseball World Series and nearly four times the average of 5 million who watched hockey’s Stanley Cup championships.

The most-watched TV program ever was last year’s NFL Super Bowl, with 112 million viewers. The average number of viewers for a regular season NFL game on Fox is 21.2 million. Major League Soccer, the professional U.S. soccer league, attracted about 250,000 viewers to its TV broadcasts last year, slightly less than the 280,000 or so who watched the European Champions League and well short of the 420,000 who watched the cable broadcasts of the U.K. Premier League.

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If anything, the World Cup for the U.S. TV audience is something to watch instead of the quadrennial summer Olympic Games. The 2012 games in London drew an average prime-time audience of 31.1 million viewers over 17 evenings. Total U.S. viewership came to 219.4 million, the highest ever for a sporting event. Comcast Corp. (NASDAQ: CMCSA) and its NBC and other broadcast and cable channels were the big winners.

The next U.S. match is Thursday at noon ET. The U.S. plays Germany and needs a win or a draw to move on to the elimination round of the tournament. If the game were being played on a weekend or during the evening, the audience would almost surely surpass last Sunday’s total. As it is, though, Univision which streams the game free (with Spanish-language commentators) may see a huge jump in viewers sitting at their desks silently chanting, “U-S-A!”

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