Saturday's match against Ghana could set record

Though the cheers were heard nationwide following Landon Donovan’s game-winning goal, none were louder than those emanating from Bristol, Conn., the home of ESPN.

Execs at the sports cabler were undoubtedly high-fiving each other as the U.S. — after winning its crucial match against Algeria — moves to round 16 of the World Cup. ESPN is ratings ratings to follow as the team advances.

ESPN execs expect that Wednesday’s match will draw more than the 5.2 million viewers who watched the U.S.-Slovenia match last Friday. That contest ranks as the third-most watched World Cup game of all time on ESPN.

Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. ET match — when the Yanks take on Ghana in the knockout round (one loss and you’re out) — could well become the most-viewed soccer match ever on the network, surpassing the 5.8 million who watched the Germany-Italy semifinal in 2006.

On the broadcast side, ABC’s telecast of the 1994 World Cup final — in which Brazil defeated Italy at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena — drew a record 14.5 million. The 1999 women’s World Cup, in which the U.S. won in against China, drew 18 million.

“This is beyond where I thought we’d be,” said John Skipper, ESPN’s exec VP of content, from South Africa following the U.S. win. “It means we’ll continue to have records broken in terms of people paying attention to a number of our platforms. It will increase our momentum. We’re going to get big spikes when (the U.S.) plays.”

Overall, it has been a stellar week for the Disney sports operation. Last Thursday’s deciding game 7 of the NBA Finals, in which the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Boston Celtics, drew 28.2 million viewers on ABC, making for the most-watched game since the Chicago Bulls won the championship in 1998.

As with the opening round of college basketball’s March Madness tournament, many office workers are watching weekday matches via web streaming. Cabler recently launched ESPN3.com as a home for live-streaming events. Through last week’s U.S.-Slovenia match, 3.4 million unique viewers had visited the site, with each spending more than 90 minutes watching the World Cup.

For all the excitement that soccer was bringing, Wimbledon crashed the party on Wednesday with an historic match that lasted 10 hours and was ultimately suspended until Thursday due to darkness. With the Germany-Ghana soccer match on ESPN and Australia-Serbia on ESPN2, the net was forced to move what might be one of the most compelling tennis contests of all time to ESPNU, the little-seen net that usually caters to collegiate sports.

Of the chaotic atmosphere in the ESPN offices Wednesday, one staffer said, “People were yelling and screaming, and vuvuzelas were going off.” The vuvuzelas are the controversial noisemakers blown by some attendees of the World Cup games.

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