A lot of people will be taking a long lunch on Thursday, if Sunday evening’s ratings are to be trusted.

The United States drew Portugal in a match that brought almost everything soccer, and sports, has to offer a viewer to the forefront: ecstasy, agony, quirky rules, thrilling plays, and a heartbreak that still left fans with hope in the last minute. The World Cup continues to be a hot draw for the networks of ESPN, but the U.S. men’s national team has casual audiences hooked.

A game that featured Cristiano Ronaldo’s epic cross to find Silvestre Varela for the latest regulation goal ever at the World Cup drew a 9.1 rating on ESPN. Richard Deitsch provided a helpful comparison: that’s the same rating the network drew for Game 7 of the 2012 NBA Eastern Conference Finals between the Heat and the Celtics. It’s easily the highest-rated World Cup match ever on ESPN, and tops the 6.3 rating (which ended up working out to 11.1 million viewers) for USA-Ghana. It’s tied for the third-highest rated World Cup match ever on any of the three Disney networks (ABC, ESPN or ESPN2).

The top ten local markets show why we may see some high viewer numbers: Washington (leading all with a 13.3 rating), Columbus, New York, Boston, Hartford, Providence, Atlanta, Baltimore, Norfolk, Orlando. That’s six current or future MLS markets, and you could probably consider Hartford, Providence, Norfolk and Baltimore adjacent to MLS markets. The fact that big markets are drawing above the average rating for this game means we may see some very high total viewer numbers.

The only World Cup matches ever on ESPN or ABC to equal or better the USA-Portugal thriller: the 1994 World Cup Final in Pasadena between Italy and Brazil (12.4 rating), the Round of 16 match between the US and Brazil from that same tournament (10.4), and the US-Ghana thriller from the round of 16 in 2010 (9.1). ESPN equaled that for a group stage match. What’s next, should the USA qualify for the round of 16 this year?

UPDATE: The final numbers are in, and they are spectacular. ESPN drew 18.2 million viewers for the game, while Univision drew 6.5 million. That means 24.7 million on average tuned into USA-Portugal. That’s a larger number than every MLB, NBA or NHL game this past season. And according to Jonathan Tannenwald, it makes it tied for the most watched soccer game in American television history.

The ESPN telecast peaked from 7:30 to 8 p.m. ET with an average of 22.9 million viewers for the english-language broadcast alone. Aside from the NFL and college football, it is ESPN’s most-watched telecast. It is ESPN’s most-watched soccer telecast on record.

About Steve Lepore

Steve Lepore is a writer for Bloguin and a correspondent for SiriusXM NHL Network Radio.

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