Sunday’s U. S.-Portugal game was the highest-rated soccer game in American TV history

By Lewis Gould

Sunday’s game between the United States and Portugal drew 25 million TV viewers in the United States, more than events like the World Series and the NBA finals. With that number, the World Cup is moving into elite territory as a sports property on American television.

Sunday’s game, which ended in a 2-2 tie after Portugal scored a late goal, attracted a total of 24.7 million viewers across two television networks, ESPN and Univision. The ESPN audience alone — 18.2 million viewers — set a record for a soccer game on American television. The previous record, for the 1999 Women’s World Cup final, which was won by the United States, was 17.9 million viewers. That game was on a broadcast network — ABC — rather than cable television.

While not near the totals scored by the NFL playoffs or the Super Bowl, the American audience for the World Cup game on Sunday easily eclipsed the NBA finals this year, which averaged 15.5 million viewers, as well as the 2013 World Series, which averaged 14.9 million viewers. The NHL playoffs are not even remotely as popular as the World Cup, having averaged only five million viewers this season.

ESPN reported Monday that the game was its most-watched event outside of NFL or college football. But it even rivaled the audience for the BCS championship game on ESPN last January. That game averaged 25.7 million viewers, only counting the ESPN numbers. Sunday’s World Cup game peaked in viewership on ESPN at 7:30 p.m. when it reached almost 23 million viewers.

Also, as with all major sports events, the numbers do not accurately reflect viewers who watched the game in groups — in bars and other locations.

The increases reflect a general surge in interest for the World Cup games, which are being hosted by Brazil. Across ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC, all owned by the Walt Disney Company, audiences for the matches thus far in the 2014 World Cup are up by 50 percent from those for the last World Cup, in South Africa in 2010. So far, the games have averaged 4.3 million viewers, up from 2.8 million in 2010. That is partly because of the more advantageous schedule in Brazil, with live games more accessible to American viewers, mainly during afternoon hours in the United States.

But increased interest in soccer in the United States may be helping to drive the numbers, as a generation of younger viewers who grew up playing the sport in youth leagues are now among the more devoted viewers for the sport.

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