More than 25 million watch final match in U.S.

Slowly but surely, soccer is becoming a bigger business for U.S. TV outlets.

ESPN and ABC Sports are over the moon about the ratings perf of this year’s World Cup tourney, capped by Sunday’s championship game that drew 24.3 million viewers across ABC and Univision, making it the most-watched soccer match ever in the U.S. according to Nielsen.

The 2010 World Cup tourney overall set records for soccer viewership in the U.S. and around the world.

ESPN brass attribute the rise in World Cup viewership among English-lingo auds to the changing complexion of the U.S. population, particularly the growth of immigrant and second-generation Hispanic and Asian populations with deeper cultural ties to the sport. And number crunchers have also noted growing interest in soccer across younger male and femme demographics, as viewers who grew up playing the game take an interest in the quadrennial world championship.

“We experienced record viewership across multiple platforms … and it was evident from the overwhelmingly positive reaction just how much fans were drawn to the spectacle of this global sports event,” said John Skipper, ESPN’s exec veep of content.

ABC’s coverage of Sunday’s final — which ended with a 1-0 victory by Spain over the Netherlands in extra time — drew an average of 15.5 million viewers from 2:30-5 p.m. ET. Univision’s Spanish-lingo coverage grabbed 8.8 million viewers. (ABC’s coverage of the U.S. team’s victory in the 1999 Women’s World Cup final still holds the English-lingo viewership record with 17.97 million viewers.)

The top-performing markets for Sunday’s final underscores the importance of the urban, multicultural aud for soccer viewership. The three top markets for ABC’s telecast were San Francisco (14.7 household rating/36 share), San Diego (13.6/28) and New York (13.1/30). Univision’s top markets were Miami (16.8/31), Los Angeles (11.9/25) and Houston (10.7/21).

For Univision, Sunday’s game ranks as the third-highest rated program in the 40-year history of the network, behind only the June 27 telecast of the game between Mexico and Argentina (9.4 million viewers) and the December 2007 clincher of telenovela “Destilando Amor” (9 million). It was up 49% in viewers over the turnout for the 2006 World Cup final between France and Italy (5.9 million).

English-lingo coverage for the 64-game tourney overall, spread among ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC, averaged 2.1 household rating and 3.26 million viewers — a 41% spike in viewers from the 2006 World Cup. Enhanced Internet coverage of games and reportage on the teams and players also proved a big factor in luring viewers.

The decision to make games available for web streaming on ESPN3.com sent that site’s viewership stats through the roof, logging its most-viewed event ever with 355,000 tuning in live for the Spain-Germany semifinal game on July 7. Through July 6, games on ESPN3.com were seen by 6.9 million unique viewers, generating 14.7 million hours of viewing and an average of two hours per viewer. (ESPN3.com will make all 64 World Cup matches available for Web streaming through the end of this year.)

Univision logged some 10 million total hours of live video viewing on its Univisionfutbol.com broadband platform, with users spending an average of 90 minutes per visit.

The viewership gains boil down to increased advertising revenue and sponsor interest in the soccer, which ensures that ESPN will bid aggressively for rights to future World Cup tourneys.

ESPN/ABC has the rights to 2014 tourney in Brazil locked up, and the time difference in that tourney will allow for numerous games in primetime. It also has next year’s femme World Cup tourney in Germany.

The cabler has high hopes that the 2018 and 2022 tourneys will be located in the U.K. and U.S., respectively, as some World Cup watchers have speculated. It’s unclear when those rights will be auctioned off, but the U.S.-viewier friendly locales could mean that ESPN will face tougher competish in bidding for the rights.

In the near term, ESPN hopes to capitalize on the momentum from the World Cup tourney by steering auds to its extensive slate of soccer coverage across its various networks, from Major League Soccer to U.K.’s Premier League games to Spain’s La Liga franchises.

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