Soccer World Cup: Weekend of Upsets Boosts Viewership

Soccer World Cup Germany Mexico
Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Nearly 26 million Germans watched Mexico's surprise upset of the defending champions, while 14.9 million French viewers caught their country's narrow 2-1 victory over Australia.

After a slow start, the 2018 soccer World Cup in Russia is kicking into high gear, with an opening weekend of matches that offered historic victories and surprise upsets, and helped boost TV ratings across Europe.

Opening-round matches featuring tournament favorites Germany, Spain, France and Argentina were among the top draws: 25.97 million German viewers, a massive 81.6 percent share, watched the defending champions on public broadcaster ZDF as they folded in their first big test against Mexico, losing 1-0. That's a boost of around 300,000 viewers compared with the first German match of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, where Die Mannschaft made easy work of Ronaldo's Portugal, beating them 4-0.

It was a different story for Portugal on Friday, as Ronaldo nearly single-handedly battled Spain to a 3-3 draw, scoring a hat trick and tying the match with a dramatic last-minute goal from a free kick. It was bad news for Spanish fans but great business for Mediaset's Cuatro, which drew 10.4 million viewers, a 68 percent share, for the match. The game also scored with neutrals in Italy, with just over 7 million tuning in on Canale 5, for 38.7 percent market share.

France's narrow 2-1 victory over Australia on Saturday gave Gallic network TF1 its best score of the year with a peak viewership of 14.9 million and an average share of 69 percent. An impressive 2.1 million viewers caught the match in Australia on SBS, the country's smallest TV network, which won the night with a 44.9 percent share.

Tiny Iceland drew with Lionel Messi’s Argentina on Saturday in one of the biggest surprises so far this tournament, a match that was a big draw for neutrals (7.5 million viewers, a 54.7 percent share, caught the game on Germany's ZDF, with a peak of 5.9 million watching in the U.K. on ITV).  Argentina's TV Publica scored an average 38.7 share, peaking at 42.3 for the match, which saw Messi miss a penalty and fail to sink a late game free kick.

But in terms of market share, nothing could compare to viewership on Iceland where, according to public broadcaster RUV, 99.6 percent of everyone watching TV on the island that night caught the match. Total viewership averaged 60 percent of Iceland's 335,000 population, beating even the 58.8 percent viewership record set two years ago, when the Iceland team knocked England out of Euro 2016.

The ratings for the first round of 2018 World Cup matches are on par with, or above, similar figures for the 2014 World Cup, suggesting that Russia's tournament could match, or beat, the record viewing figures seen four years ago in Brazil. Thursday's opening match of the 2018 World Cup, betweeen hosts Russia and bottom-ranked Saudi Arabia, underwhelmed most everywhere on the ratings front, with the exception of Russia, where 9.9 million tuned in on public broadcaster Channel One.