The World Cup is moving into elite territory as a sports property on U.S. television, as ratings for Sunday's game between the United States and Portugal were the highest for any soccer game and reached more viewers than events like the NBA Finals or the World Series.
Sunday's game, which ended in a 2-2 tie after Portugal scored a late goal, attracted 18.2 million viewers on ESPN. The previous record, for the 1999 Women's World Cup final, which was won by the U.S., 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, even for many regular-season games, the U.S. 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 5 million viewers this season.
ESPN reported Monday that the game was its most watched event outside of NFL or college football. The game peaked in viewership at 7:30 p.m. when it reached almost 23 million viewers.
The ESPN numbers do not include the audience that watched the game on the Spanish-language Univision network, which averaged almost 5 million viewers for the United States' opening game against Ghana, and will presumably post a much larger number for Sunday's game. There was also a sizable audience watching the game online; ESPN announced that WatchESPN had an average audience of just less than 500,000 who streamed the game.
And, as with all major sports events, the numbers do not accurately reflect viewers who watched the game in groups - in bars and other locations. So all told, the number of fans who watched the game was most likely well past 25 million.
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 Co., 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. Part of that reflects the more advantageous schedule in Brazil, with live games more accessible to U.S. viewers.
But increased interest in soccer in the U.S. may be helping to drive the numbers.
Unless the U.S. advances to the knockout round, Sunday's game could be the high water mark for World Cup ratings because the game was played during customary hours for sports viewing. The next U.S. game, against Germany, will be played Thursday at noon Eastern time.
Twitter also reported Monday that more than 8 million posts were sent during the U.S.-Portugal match. And Facebook reported about 10 million participants offering about 20 million reactions.