(Updated—July 3, 3 p.m. Eastern) ESPN's coverage of Sunday's Euro 2012 final between Spain and Italy drew an average U.S. audience of 4.068 million viewers—up eight percent on the 3.671 million who tuned in for the Euro 2008 final (the previous record for European Championship coverage in the U.S).
Over the course of their tournament coverage, ESPN achieved a 51 percent rise in American audience from that which tuned in for the Euro 2008 four years ago, further evidence that soccer's reach is continuing to grow in America.
During the group stage, the viewing figures for ESPN's English-language coverage were up around 80 percent from '08. According to Sports Business Daily, ESPN averaged a reach of 784,000 households and over a million viewers. That's compared to 439,000 households and 552,000 viewers in 2008.
The group-stage clash between Spain and Italy, in Group C, was the biggest draw, pulling in an average audience of 2.113 million on June 10.
The gains for ESPN's Spanish-language coverage, on ESPN Deportes, were even more staggering—with audience numbers up around 130 percent for the group stages of Euro 2012.
There were more spikes to be reported at the quarterfinal stage.
"The four Euro 2012 quarterfinals drew an average of 1.463 million households and 1.918 million viewers for ESPN, a jump of 31 percent in both categories compared to the 2008 quarterfinal round," wrote Scott Roxborough for the Hollywood Reporter.
The biggest draw of the four games was England's meeting with Italy, which saw almost three million tune in to watch the Italians advance on penalty shootout.
ESPN's coverage of the semifinals provided further evidence of America's ever-increasing infatuation with football. An average ESPN audience of 1.907 million watched Spain beat Portugal on penalties and Italy defeat Germany.
ESPN Deportes, meanwhile, enjoyed a 250 percent increase on the audience that watched the Euro 2008 semifinals—reaching an average of 586,000 viewers over the two matches. For Spain's meeting with Italy, that number rose to 650,000 (numbers as per Paddock Talk).
Everywhere you look, there is evidence that football is taking hold in the U.S. like never before. A new generation is coming through schooled on its every nuance, and some of those who fell in love with the game around the time America hosted the 1994 World Cup are now passing the gospel to their children.
Even for those whose hearts belong to traditional U.S. sports, soccer has become something they at least need to be aware of—something they need to take seriously as a general sports fan with a finger on the pulse.
Wrote Simon Evans for Reuters:
The U.S. has traditionally been one of the weakest markets for international soccer, but the game is increasingly popular among a young demographic and in the growing Hispanic community.
ESPN is not the only media network to have benefited from America's interest in Euro 2012. Here at Bleacher Report, we've seen Web traffic rise significantly for our world football pages during the tournament, which posted record numbers.
This has been reflected in the profile we've lent the tournament, with Euro 2012 stories regularly leading the site's front-page coverage.
World football is by no means "taking over" in the U.S., but when it comes to the big-hitting sports packing a punch, it's clearly earned a seat at the table.
"It's clear that there's been a significant upgrade in the attention we pay to the world's sport," said ESPN president John Skipper (AP).
ESPN will hope the trend continues through domestic and European competition this season, then onto World Cup 2014 and Euro 2016. From there, Fox takes over World Cup 2018 and 2022 to take their turn in reaping the benefits of the world's game in America.