2nd UPDATE: Tuesday’s USA-Belgium match averaged 16.49 million viewers on ESPN, according to updated in-home viewing estimates by Nielsen — making it the second most-watched men’s World Cup telecast ever in the States, behind only USA-Portugal last month (18.2 million). Viewership peaked with 19.54 million in the extra-time session. Of course, the estimate doesn’t include millions of viewers watching in sports bars or at the office on a Tuesday afternoon.
Combined with the 5.1 million who watched on Univision, Tuesday’s match drew 21.6 million viewers; the previous high for a men’s soccer match was the 24.7 million for USA-Portugal, which included 6.5 million viewers on Univision.
For the World Cup through the Round of 16, ESPN and ABC averaged 4.08 million viewers — a record audience for the tournament, up 44% from 2010 (2.84 million) and 122% from 2006 (1.84 million).
UPDATE: Tuesday’s match averaged 5.1 million viewers on Univision, according to Nielsen, a bigger crowd than the previous U.S. games against Ghana (4.8 million) and Germany (3.4 million), but below the 6.5 million it drew when it played Portugal. For the now-completed Round of 16, the Spanish-language network averaged a best-ever 4.4 million viewers.
Online, Univision Digital also set a record with 1.8 million unique viewers for USA-Belgium.
Despite an afternoon start time that made it difficult for many Americans to get home to see it, Tuesday’s U.S. men’s soccer match against Belgium in the FIFA World Cup delivered huge ratings for ESPN — setting a cable record for the sport.
According to Nielsen estimates, Belgium’s 2-1 victory in extra time on Tuesday netted a 9.6 overnight rating on ESPN, eclipsing the previous World Cup rating record on the network of a 9.1 rating for the USA-Portugal contest on June 22 of this tournament. When the U.S. played in the second round of the 2010 World Cup, its match against Ghana also did a 9.1 rating, but that was on ABC and on a Saturday afternoon.
What’s most impressive about Tuesday’s rating is that it was accomplished with a weekday afternoon game (4 p.m. ET start), unlike the ideal gametime of Sunday afternoon for USA-Portugal earlier this World Cup. Nielsen’s estimates include only in-home viewing, so those watching in bars or in the workplace were not counted.
The only World Cup matches to ever rate higher on English-language television were on ABC: a 12.8 for the 1994 final between Brazil and Italy and a 10.4 for USA-Brazil in that tournament’s second round.
Tuesday’s game peaked from 5:45-6 p.m. ET (during the extra-time period) with a 14.1 household rating.
Meanwhile, WatchESPN peaked at 1.5 million concurrent viewers. Over on Univision Digital, the USA-Belgium match peaked with 680,000 streams, and the average viewers per minute (563,000) is the second most for a game this tournament, behind USA-Germany.
Nielsen will release updated total-viewer estimates later Wednesday, but it’s possible that Tuesday’s match hit 20 million viewers on ESPN alone. The USA-Portugal game from the first round of this year’s tournament averaged 18.22 million viewers (plus 6.5 million on Univision).
The top-10 metered markets were New York (15.0), Hartford/New Haven (13.2), Washington, D.C., (12.8), Richmond (12.3), Boston (12.2), West Palm Beach (12.0), Baltimore (11.4), Cincinnati (11.4), San Diego (11.0), Columbus (10.8), Norfolk (10.8) and Orlando (10.8).
In social media Tuesday, Facebook that roughly 13 million people had more than 21 million interactions (posts, comments and likes) related to the match. This includes 4.1 million people with more than 6.5 million interactions in the United States alone.