A funny thing is happening in the U.S.: People are watching soccer. ESPN said today that Sunday’s Italy-England matchup in the quarterfinals of the European Cup soccer championships was seen by an average of 2.968 million viewers in the States, bigger than any Euro Cup match number this year or in 2008 — except for the ’08 final on ABC (3.760 million for Germany vs. Spain). Overall, the four Euro 2012 quarterfinals last week delivered an average of 1.918 million viewers for ESPN, up 31% compared with the 2008 quarterfinals. The trend continues from earlier last week, when the network reported big U.S. ratings for the final group stage matchups that were up 82% over Euro 2008. June 10th’s Spain-Italy game scored an average of 2.1M viewers.

Of course, Euro 2012 fever has gripped Europe over the past two weeks as TV ratings rise and box office bends — but not quite like Beckham. Here in Europe, where soccer is an obsession, that’s to be expected and studios programmed big-screen releases strategically, knowing most eyes would be on the pitches of Poland and Ukraine this month. Fox’s Prometheus, Universal’s Snow White And The Huntsman and Sony’s Men In Black 3 have been the top draws in most territories in June with fresh blood in the form of The Amazing-Spider Man to swing across Europe from Friday onwards. The Euro final is Sunday.

Although England was knocked out, the UK ratings for the Italy match scored top numbers. At its peak Sunday night, the telecast drew 23.2M viewers for BBC One, repping a 77.4% share of the audience. The last time a soccer match drew such numbers, England was getting knocked out of Euro 2004 by Portugal — also during a shootout. The England-Italy quarterfinal averaged 20.2M viewers with a 67.8% audience share over 2+ hours of tense play dominated by Italy’s Azzurri, who will face Germany in the semis on Thursday. Portugal and defending tournament champ Spain play in the other semifinal Wednesday.

Elsewhere in Europe, the weekend’s quarterfinal matches drew solid numbers. In France, where TF1 and M6 share the broadcast rights, TF1 netted more than 11.2M viewers for a little more than 52% of the audience during Saturday’s France-Spain match. It was the second best score for the net this year, but still relatively low when compared to previous tournaments. That’s a testament to how fed up the French public is with a team that can’t find a groove after its disastrous exit from 2010′s World Cup. France was more forgiving last week when M6 drew its second-best score ever with 12.2M viewers for the France-Sweden group match. But ratings will flag now that Spain sent France home in a 2-0 shutout over the weekend.

In Spain, the defending Euro and World Cup champs are also breaking TV records. The Spain-Croatia meet-up during the group matches gave Telecinco the 5th-highest Spanish TV audience since ratings began to be calculated in 1992. That game drew 14.27M viewers for a 70.4% share. The Spanish side’s viewership has been steadily increasing with the first four games going from a 60.2% share to 70.2%, 70.4% and 76.7% for this Saturday’s elimination of France.

In Germany, broadcasters ARD and ZDF have regularly been pulling in more than 27M soccer viewers for shares above 74%. In Friday’s matchup between Germany and Greece, 26.8M watched the encounter for a 77.8% share. Sunday night, an estimated average of 19.3M fans tuned in for the England-Italy game to see who Germany would meet in the semis.

In England, the TV numbers were a bit softer until Sunday. Peak viewing had previously reached 18.6M viewers on ITV1 and 16.2M viewers on BBC One for some of the earlier matches.

And in Italy, Rai Uno averaged 17.3M viewers for a 65.4% share of the audience when it outplayed England in Sunday’s quarterfinal dispute. During the shootout that led to England’s ouster, it’s estimated those figures rose to 21.4M viewers for an 83.5% share.

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