Soccer tournament showcases top teams

BERLIN — Soccer fever has gripped Europe, leaving millions of fans glued to the tube as the Euro 2008 Championships, being co-hosted by Switzerland and Austria, dominate primetime TV.

The tournament, which runs June 7-29, is a cultural phenomenon that many consider more exciting than the World Cup as it showcases Europe’s top teams — even if the United Kingdom is a bystander this time around.

And it’s not just being watched at home. Across the continent, crowds of revelers gather at outdoor venues, pubs and restaurants to watch the matches, turning the tourney into a major summer event.

Ratings for the first eight matches of the contest were “absolutely extraordinary,” European soccer body UEFA said on June 11.

In Portugal and the Netherlands, viewer market share reached more than 80%.

More than 23.7 million viewers in Poland saw their opening June 8 game against Germany, equivalent to a market share of 69.6%, while in Austria, 1.5 million viewers tuned in to see their team’s opening match against Croatia, a share of just under 60. Also, 2 million Swiss viewers watched their opener against the Czech Republic, garnering a 70 share.

In Germany, pubcaster ZDF scored a 70 share as 23.7 million viewers tuned in to watch Germany beat Poland 2-0 on June 8.

The TV turnout beat that of the 2006 World Cup starting game, in which 20.1 million fans watched Germany beat Costa Rica 4-2, resulting in a 75.7 share.

“The figures in Germany are stunning and the figures for the Netherlands-Italy game in Holland are probably an all-time high for Dutch television,” says William Gaillard, UEFA’s director of communications. “I didn’t think it was possible to get more than 80% of the population watching one program on TV when you have so many channels offering other things. It is absolutely extraordinary, almost historical.”

Across Europe, ratings for neutral matches, in which the countries did not have a team, were also impressively high, illustrated by the 14.9 million viewers in Germany who watched the Netherlands trounce Italy 3-0 on June 9.

Ratings have remained stratospheric throughout the week. On Tuesday, some 11.75 million Germans (41.5%) watched Greece’s 2-0 loss to Sweden on pubcaster ARD, marking not only the best ratings of the day, but also the sixth time in the tournament that TV viewership in Germany reached the double-digit millions.

In Gaul, the France-Romania match on June 9 shattered ratings records on commercial channel M6 with a viewership of 12.7 million viewers and a 54 share — its best showing since its 1987 launch.

Perhaps more surprisingly, the match garnered 46% of women under 50.

Euro 2008 has reaped expectedly stellar ratings on pubcaster RAI in Italy, where the national team’s opening debacle against the Netherlands scored a whopping 62 primetime share.

Fever pitch is below World Cup levels when the home team’s not on the pitch, but still solid enough to dominate. Portugal’s win against Turkey, for example, commanded a sweeping 29 primetime rating on RAI’s flagship RAI-1.

The championships are also dazzling Spanish auds. Between June 7-10, Sogecable’s free-to-air web Cuatro averaged an 11.2 share, up 3.4% up over its May share (7.8).

On June 10, the debut of the Spanish soccer team drove Cuatro to a 15.4 share, its best daily result since the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Spain’s 4-1 victory over Russia averaged a 53.9 share and 6.8 million viewers — a stunning performance, especially for a game airing outside of primetime.

Neutral matches are also scoring excellently among Spaniards. With 4.5 million viewers, the Holland-Italy match garnered a 27.1 share, while Germany-Poland pulled in 3.3 million, a 19.8 share.

In Blighty, initial concerns that the absence of England or any other of the Home Nations would hit Euro 2008 TV ratings have proven unfounded.

Both the BBC and ITV, which between them show all the games live on free-to-air in the U.K., have enjoyed better-than-expected viewing figures.

The opening game between Switzerland and the Czech Republic garnered peak figures of 4.6 million and average viewing figures of 3.5 million.

Ratings even held up on the first Sunday of the tournament despite competition from the Formula One Grand Prix and the men’s tennis final of the French Open on the same day as the primetime Germany-Poland match, resulting in an average of 4.5 million viewers with a peak of 5.6 million, a 25% audience share.

Growing interest in the tournament continued as the June 9 match between Holland and Italy achieved viewership of 7.3 million, a 33% audience share for ITV.

“While not having England in the tournament means we’re not going to see those one-off viewing figures of 9-16 million for the England games, the ratings so far for the BBC and ITV have exceeded our expectations. We’re really pleased and the interest is building,” says a BBC spokesman. “We’re still confident of getting 10 million viewers for the final.”

Additional reporting by David Hayhurst in Paris, Nick Vivarelli in Rome, Emiliano de Pablos in Spain and Ali Jaafar in London.

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