World Cup: International Ratings Strong, Not Historic, for Group Stage

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Germany's early exit from soccer's top tournament could leave a viewership gap for the upcoming rounds.

Viewership figures for the first round of the 2018 soccer World Cup have been impressive, but not record-breaking, with several on-field upsets helping to drive international viewership.

Opening-round matches were among the strongest performers, with Mexico's 1-0 defeat of defending champion Germany (who have since been knocked out of the tournament), France's narrow 2-1 win over Australia and England's late-2-1 victory over Tunisia among the top draws.

A total of 18.6 million Mexican fans watched their opening-match shocker on TV Azteca, a drop from the 19.9 million that caught Mexico's first match of the Brazil 2014 against Croatia, but still impressive given the time zone gap between Mexico City and Russia. In Germany, 25.97 million watched their favored side go down in defeat, slightly more (300,000) than caught the first match of the 2014 tournament, which saw Germany beat Portugal 4-0 en-route to a fourth World Cup. 

The biggest German TV audience, however, tuned in for Die Mannschaft's second game, against Sweden, which was decided with a dramatic injury time free kick from German midfielder Toni Kroos: 27.48 million Germans watched the match, an all-time high for the 2018 tournament, though not an all-time record. That crown is held by the 2014 final, which saw 34.65 million German fans watch their team win the World Cup with a dramatic 1-0 victory over Argentina.

Going forward in World Cup 2018, Germany's inglorious exit from the first round of the tournament will put a damper on TV viewership in Europe's most populous country. Thursday's England-versus-Belgium match drew fewer than 8 million viewers on German public broadcaster ARD for a meager 28.2 percent share.

But with England, France, Spain, Portugal and Belgium still in the running, ratings in western Europe should hold up. England's 2-1 opening match victory over Tunisia was watched by a peak audience of 18.3 million on the BBC, more than caught last month's royal wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle and significantly more than the 15.6 million Brits that tuned in four years ago to watch the Three Lions lose 1-2 to Italy in their 2014 opener in Brazil.

France's 2-1 opening match victory over Australia is the top-rated program of the entire year in France so far, with an average of 12.6 million viewers and a peak viewership of 15 million, giving network TF1 a 69 percent market share. France's 1-0 victory over Peru on June 21 drew a peak of 13.7 million viewers and a 66 percent share, suggesting fans of Les Bleus will stick around, so long as their team keeps winning. The first-round ratings are only slightly below peak viewership for the 2014 tournament, which topped out in France's quarterfinal defeat to Germany, which was watched by 16.9 million French viewers, for a 72.1 percent share.

Host nation Russia has also had a good tournament, both on the field, with team Russia easily qualifying for the second round, an on the small screen, where some 17 million Russians caught their team's final first-round match against Uruguay on June 25. The game, which scored a 48.4 percent share for the national Channel One network, easily beat Russia v. Belgium, the top-rated first-round match of Brazil 2014, which drew a 31.2 percent share for Rossiya 1.

Further east, Japan is the last Asian team left standing, squeaking through to the second round from Group H on fair play rules after drawing equal on points with Senegal. Expectations were low for the Samurai Blue, which had lost nearly all of its pre-tournament friendlies, but the team's surprise 2-1 win over Columbia June 19, the first time an Asian squad had defeated a South American one at a World Cup, helped ratings on Japanese public broadcaster NHK, which peaked at 55.4 percent as Japan secured its historic victory, according to Video Research Ltd. NHK estimated that around 600,000 people also tuned in online to its trial simultaneous internet broadcast. That compares favorably with the 50.8 percent that tuned in for the opening match of Brazil 2014, which saw Japan lose 1-2 to Ivory Coast.

Though they failed to progress, South Korea's historic 2-0 defeat of Germany Wednesday night drew record ratings, with 60.9 percent of all TV viewers in South Korea tuning in across the three terrestrial channels — KBS, MBC and SBS — that aired the match,  according to TV ratings survey company ATAM. That compares to a peak of 52.5 percent for the 2014 tournament.

But whatever happens in the final two weeks of the 2018 World Cup, no ratings figures are likely to match the record set by tiny Iceland, who drew 1-all in their June 16 World Cup debut against two-time World Cup winners Argentina. Iceland's national broadcasting service RUV reported that 201,000 people, or fully 60 percent of the country's entire population, caught the match, making it the most-watched sporting event in Iceland’s history. Calculated by audience share, that amounts to 99.6 percent of the viewing public.

Sadly the smallest nation to ever qualify for a World Cup (Iceland has a total population of around 337,000) was knocked out, so RUV is unlikely to top that figure anytime soon.

Rhonda Richford in Paris, Alex Ritman in London, Lee Hyo-won in Seoul, Gavin Blair in Tokyo, John Hecht in Mexico City and Vladimir Kozlov in Moscow contributed to this report.