Soccer friendlies portend big summer ratings

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COLOGNE, Germany -- European broadcasters got a taste of the ratings bonanza that will descend on the continent this summer during the European Cup soccer championship, Euro 2008 (June 7-29).

Tens of millions of European fans tuned in Wednesday night to watch the final round of friendly -- read utterly unimportant -- matches between Europe's national teams. Games featuring the home squad won ratings races in virtually every territory, with the notable exception of England, whose team failed to qualify for Euro 2008.

If Wednesday's ratings are any indication, Euro 2008 could break all previous records and -- in continental Europe at least -- prove a nightmare for shows and series on competing channels.

A full 10.7 million Germans, representing a 34% market share, watched their boys trounce Euro 2008 host nation Switzerland 4-0 on public broadcaster ZDF.

Across the border in the Netherlands, the Dutch squad's 4-3 defeat of Switzerland's co-hosts Austria drew 2.1 million viewers, a 32% share of the television audience, for commercial channel SBS6.

In soccer-mad Spain, 5.4 million fans watched their team beat world champions Italy 1-0, a 28% share of the audience for public broadcaster Television Espanola.

In France, 34% of local eyeballs, some 8.2 million people, watched Les Blues defeat England 1-0 at home in Wembley stadium.

It was a different story across the Channel, where English fans have apparently tired of watching their team lose. In England, an average of just 2.6 million tuned in to the game on pay channel Sky Sports 1.

That compared to 6.4 million for BBC1's new series of "The Apprentice" and 2.7 million for Channel 4's airing of "Desperate Housewives."

But England proved the odd man out. Across continental Europe, international soccer continues to grow its audience share, even for apparently insignificant matches. In Germany, a late night highlight show featuring the match between second-tier soccer teams the U.S.A. and Poland drew more than 5 million viewers, a 28% share.

One can only imagine what the numbers will look like when Euro 2008 kicks off and the games actually start to mean something.

Rebecca Leffler in Paris, Ab Zagt in Amsterdam and Pamela Rolfe in Madrid contributed to this report.
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