Women’s World Cup final was most-watched soccer game in US history

Richard Sandomir

The United States' 5-2 victory over Japan in the Women's World Cup final on Sunday was seen by 25.4 million viewers on Fox — a record for any soccer game, men's or women's, shown on English-language television in this country.

With nearly 1.3 million viewers watching on Telemundo, the Spanish-language station, the total of 26.7 million also exceeds the record 26.5 million combined viewers that saw Germany beat Argentina in last year's men's World Cup final on ABC and Spanish-language Univision.

In effect, the United States women are now champions on two fronts, a testament to their enduring talent and to their appeal to an American public that increasingly seems tuned in to soccer.

The U.S. team hold the trophy after winning the final match of the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup
Franck Fife | AFP | Getty Images

Ed Desser, a sports television consultant and former N.B.A. executive, described several factors leading to a "perfect storm" of viewership on Sunday night: a time of year with light sports competition, a strong American team to root for, a rematch of the 2011 Women's World Cup finalists, and weeks of buildup for the American team on both Fox and Fox Sports 1.

"This was an event, the sort of thing that galvanizes an audience," Desser said.

With the World Cup being played in Canada, Fox also had the advantage of North American time zones and prime-time slots for the games played by the United States team.

The audience for the women's final exceeded those for the recent N.B.A. finals and for last year's World Series. In fairness, though, World Cups and Olympics come along every four years and are not directly comparable to annual best-of-seven series.

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Still, it has to come as something of a surprise that Game 7 of the compelling World Series between the Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco Giants in October attracted 23.5 million on English-language television, or two million fewer than the American women drew on Sunday night. The sixth and deciding game of the N.B.A. finals, won by Golden State over Cleveland and featuring Stephen Curry and LeBron James, also lost out to the women by about two million viewers.

The men's final of the 2015 N.C.A.A. men's basketball tournament, in contrast, topped the women's final with 28.3 million viewers. But it is the women who are surging.

A blowout like Sunday's World Cup final often prompts viewers to tune out. But that did not occur this time. The American team scored four early goals and entered halftime in Vancouver with a 4-1 lead, which is close to insurmountable in soccer. Still, an estimated audience of 18.2 million viewers at the start of the match, at 7 p.m. Eastern, grew to a peak of 30.9 million viewers late in the game, between 8:30 and 8:45 p.m.

Fans might have stayed until the end to see if Carli Lloyd would score a fourth goal. Or they might have been waiting for Abby Wambach to enter the game for what seems virtually certain to be her World Cup farewell. Or perhaps they simply wanted to see the United States team celebrate the country's first World Cup in 16 years in front of a buoyant capacity crowd of American fans in Vancouver.

Carli Lloyd of the United States reacts in the first half after scoring a goal against Japan in the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015 Final at BC Place Stadium on July 5, 2015, in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Getty Images

At Fox, there was some shock on Monday at the record size of Sunday's audience.

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"No question, I underestimated where this would be," said Mike Mulvihill, senior vice president for programming and research for Fox Sports. "It's one of the most pleasant surprises we've ever had."

He said he thought viewership might reach 19 million, which would have beaten the 17.9 million for the 1999 Women's World Cup final, in which the United States beat China in a penalty-kick shootout on ABC. That figure would also have topped the record 18.2 million English-language viewers for the United States-Portugal group-stage game in the 2014 men's World Cup. But 25 million seemed well out of reach.

"I was blown away," Mulvihill said.

He added that the viewership figures showed that 1.7 viewers in each home were watching the game, a little higher than usual for sports events. "That suggested more group viewing than we anticipated," Mulvihill said, comparing it to gatherings common for Thanksgiving N.F.L. games.

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Major sports events often attract casual viewers who might not be riveted to an entire season or tournament. Droves of casual viewers seem to have poured in on Sunday as viewership more than tripled from the 8.4 million for the United States-Germany World Cup semifinal last Tuesday night.

Desser cautioned against looking at Sunday's well-watched final as a significant signpost for added growth for soccer in the United States.

"It was a very interesting event that took place at a good time of day in the right hemisphere, and there were good story lines," he said. "But you won't see a material difference in the sports business off this event.

"Next week things will be back to normal, although I think it increases the likelihood that someone will buy a ticket to an M.L.S. game or watch the E.P.L.," he added in reference to Major League Soccer and the English Premier League.

Perhaps it may also raise attendance for games of the National Women's Soccer League, in which 22 of the 23 members of the United States team (all but Wambach) will resume playing next week.

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