World Cup 2014: Opening Match Ratings

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Brazil Beat Croatia 3-1 in the opening match for the 2014 World Cup

UPDATED: ESPN scores a 3.2 overnight rating, the best performance for a World Cup Opener on record for the U.S., while Thursday's kick-off match between Brazil and Croatia won the night around the globe.

After months of anticipation, the globe's most-watched sporting event, the soccer World Cup, kicked off Thursday night with a match between tournament host Brazil and Croatia and before a television audience numbering in the hundreds of millions.

Even in the U.S., where soccer is still a niche sport, ratings were solid, with ESPN reporting an average 3.2 overnight rating for Thursday night's opening match between host Brazil and Croatia. ESPN said the rating was the highest it has ever recorded for a World Cup Opener since the channel began tracking the data in 1998. It was also a 52 percent jump on the 2.1 rating recorded for the opening match in 2010 between South Africa and Mexico. Of the top ten metered markets in the U.S., the strongest performance was in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C., where the game drew a 5.1 overnight, compared to a 5.0 in Boston, 4.6 in Los Angeles and 4.5 in New York.

But better still was Univision's ratings. The Spanish-language channel drew 5.1 million viewers, compared to ESPN's 4.4 million for the opening match.

Final ratings figures aren't yet in for all territories but preliminary estimates show that in key international territories including Germany, Spain, France and the U.K., ratings were strong and up sharply on the opening match of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

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That had less to do with the quality of soccer on display—though Brazil's squad has a large internationally following—than with the scheduling of the match. The opening match of the 2010 Cup aired early afternoon in Europe, while Thursday's kick-off was in primetime, or near enough to it.

15.87 million German viewers—62.6 percent of the viewing public—tuned in to network ZDF for the game, nearly double that of the 2010 Opener, when 8.6 million caught the match. An impressive 65 percent of 14-49 year-olds, the key advertising demographic, saw Brazil beat Croatia 3-1.

In the U.K., a total of 12.6 million viewers, or 52.9 percent of the audience, caught ITV's broadcast, with the average over the entire match at 11.2 million. An average 8.2 million Brits, or 40.3 percent of the audience, watched ITV's entire coverage of the game, which ran from 7 p.m. to 11:15 p.m. To compare, the 2010 South Africa vs. Mexico opener pulled just 4.3 million viewers, a 45 percent share. In France, 46.5 percent of the audience, or 8.7 million viewers, saw the game, while in Italy the match drew 9.1 million viewers for a 41.1 percent share.

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Telecinco scored 8.4 million viewers, a 43 percent share, in soccer-mad Spain, though ratings are expected to spike well above that on Friday, when Spain facse the Netherlands, a rematch of the 2010 final, which Spain won 1-0. Dutch viewers, 3.6 million of which caught the opening night match on the NOS network, will also be out in force Friday.

Final ratings figures were not available for Brazil, but free-to-air network Globo reported that fully 60 percent of all connected devices, including television, mobile phones, tablets and computers, were tuned to the opening night match. Figures from Facebook showed that 16 million Brazilians had more than 40 million Facebook interactions about the match on Thursday, a figure that represented nearly 30 percent of total Facebook activity in the country.

The actual television ratings figure in Brazil and elsewhere is likely much higher as, in most territories, the game also aired on pay-TV, which traditionally does not publish audience figures. Many fans also caught the match at bars, restaurants and, in several countries, free outdoor viewing areas, none of which were included in the initial ratings tally.