World Cup: Guess what? People are watching

ESPN's coverage of the World Cup has been well-watched and well-received

The World Cup has been a boon to ESPN, not that the all-powerful sports media player needs it.

The network carved out an overnight rating of 6.3 for the U.S.-Germany game -- well below its record 9.1 rating (18.2 million viewers) for the Americans' previous match with Portugal but impressive for an early weekday start time.

The drop in TV audience partly was made up on the live-stream portion, which peaked with an ESPN website record for concurrent watchers. The online crowd was sizable enough to cause a temporary crash with the streaming.

Adding to ESPN's blessings, the U.S. landed in the later time slot for its next game, Tuesday against Belgium. The kickoff (1 p.m., Pacific) guarantees higher TV ratings than an earlier window (10 a.m.).

ESPN's coverage has been largely well-received. Most of the play-by-play voices are first rate, notably lead announcer Ian Darke, even though he did display confusion Thursday with the bracket and the impact of the Portugal-Ghana score on the U.S. fate. Analysts Steve McManaman and Taylor Twellman have shined.

The studio shows have clicked, particularly when viewers are treated to the good Alexi Lalas -- analytic, informative, dropping anecdotes. The bad Lalas, who was more evident early in the tournament, was trite, mumbling and lacking enthusiasm, though he could be excused. The indefatigable ex-player is on air so often that maybe there are two of him.

ESPN's "we" approach to the U.S. might play well in many circles but is off-putting to some viewers. Team USA alumni on the studio set and in the booth often are asked how they are holding up emotionally before and during the Americans' match. It's a questionable tactic; Jon Gruden's Monday Night Football Leagues colleagues do not wonder aloud how he is coping while calling a Raiders or Buccaneers game.

At least ESPN shows consistency. The rotating studio hosts similarly show (or feign) concern for the mental state of their international sidekicks as they (supposedly) suffer through matches involving their former teams.

Viewing records also are being smashed on Univision, the Spanish-language network that has lured some soccerphiles who have found the mostly British play-by-play announcers relatively languid.

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