While the U.S. TV audience for the European soccer championship wasn’t in the same league as the one that gathered round the tube in the UK—and how could it have been, when this was England’s best hope of winning its first major title since the 1966 World Cup—the stateside deliveries set a record for ESPN.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the Italy-England match averaged a sturdy 6.49 million viewers, making it the most-watched UEFA Euro Final on the books. The deliveries marked a 43% increase versus the 2016 Portugal-France telecast and topped the 2008 Germany-Spain final on ABC by a full 60%.
The Sunday afternoon telecast also beat out the previous top draw, the Spain-Italy title tilt of 2012, by 1.92 million viewers.
ESPN’s audience peaked at 8.2 million viewers as the Azzurri clinched the title on penalty kicks. In taking the title (and at Wembley Stadium, no less), Italy all but erased the memory of 2018, when the team failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 60 years. For England, the shootout loss was a heartbreaker, and the crushing disappointment was nowhere more evident than in the shot of Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka sobbing in the arms of manager Gareth Southgate.
The scene with Southgate and Saka was as if someone had constructed a Möbius strip of intergenerational trauma; while the 19-year-old’s misery was newly forged, Southgate has been haunted by the memory of his own missed Euro penalty kick for a quarter of a century. After the match, Southgate took full responsibility for allowing Saka to take the final kick. “It’s down to me,” Southgate said. “I decided on the penalty takers based on what we’ve done in training. Nobody is on their own. That’s my call, and it totally rests on me.”
Some 31 million viewers in the U.K. watched the final on BBC and ITV, making it one of the most-watched programs in British TV history. The massive draw was in line with the 32.2 million viewers who tuned in for England’s victory over West Germany in the ’66 World Cup and the 32.1 million Brits who watched Princess Diana’s funeral on Sept. 6, 1997.
Back in the States, where soccer is still not exactly what anyone would call a matter of life and death, the TV audience was anything but insignificant. Not only did the Italy-England match deliver more viewers than each game of NBC Sports’ coverage of the Stanley Cup Final, but it also handily out-delivered nearly every game of the 2020-21 NBA season. Per Nielsen, only the Christmas Day Mavs-Lakers broadcast, two playoff outings and the three NBA Finals games have put up bigger numbers than Sunday’s overseas soccer showdown. For the sake of context, the two conference semifinals telecasts (Bucks-Nets, Hawks-Sixers) were both Game 7s.
Italy-England also scared up more viewers than any MLB broadcast since Game 6 of the 2020 World Series. But before we start reshuffling the U.S. sports pyramid, it’s worth noting that tonight’s All-Star Game on Fox is almost certain to top the weekend soccer match.
While England agonized, Italy gamboled around the pitch in a loose-limbed celebration led by Juventus’ Giorgio Chiellini, the world’s oldest-looking 36-year-old. The Italian captain’s joy may have made for a stark contrast with what Saka was going through on his patch of grass, but Chiellini helped make must-see TV throughout the tournament, as the Azzurri accounted for three of ESPN’s five most-watched telecasts.
All told, the 51-match Euro tourney averaged 1.36 million viewers, which marked a 31% increase compared to the 2016 event.