Cable network sure to extend solid soccer ratings

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. — by winning its crucial match versus Algeria — now moves on to the round of 16 in the World Cup and the stellar ratings that come with it.

Though the numbers won’t be officially in until Thursday, ESPN officials were anticipating Wednesday’s match could possibly draw more than the 5.2 million who watched the USA-Slovenia match last Friday, and that contest currently 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, Calif. — drew a record 14.5 million. And the women’s World Cup, in which the U.S. won in 1999 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.”

As with the opening round of college basketball’s March Madness tournament, many office workers are watching weekday matches on their computers. Cabler recently launched ESPN3 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 the soccer was bringing, Wimbledon crashed the party with a 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 normally 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 the attendees of the World Cup games.

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.

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