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The 5 biggest sporting events in UK television history

Here are the top five most-watched sporting events in UK TV history.

By Dan Cole  |  May 30, 2022
Raheem Sterling
Image Credit: Belish/Bigstock.com

The Great British summer, it means different things to different people. For some, it’s summer houses in Cornwall and days lounging at the beach, for others, it’s inviting friends and family over for an all-day barbecue. For a great proportion of the United Kingdom, as the figures later in this piece confirm, a truly iconic summer cannot be crowned without getting swept up in a case of top sports fever.

Cast your mind back to those romantic British sporting occasions, the ones that freeze in time in your mind – Super Saturday at London 2012, Manchester United’s European miracle in 1999, Andy Murray ending a 77-year men’s singles drought at Wimbledon – to name just a few in the last couple of decades. What do they all have in common? They were sweltering summer days. But that didn’t stop us crowding around the television set.

All three of the examples listed above stand out in this author’s mind as epochal moments – but none even rank in the top-five most viewed sporting occasions in British history.

Curious? Let’s find out together.

London hosted the Olympic Games back in 2012. Image credit: ATGImages/Bigstock.com

5. 1998 FIFA World Cup, Round of 16: England 2-2(p) Argentina. 23.78m viewers. ITV.

30 June, 1998. Saint Etienne, France. Did anyone know what was about to go down in the next 120 minutes of breathless World Cup action?

Legends and villains were formed on a humid night just across the channel as England slipped to a heart-breaking, cruel, and arguably undeserved defeat at the hands of the Argentines on penalties.

Having stuttered through the group stages and finished runner-up to Romania, Glenn Hoddle’s side would face Group H winners Argentina, with a team full of some of the world’s finest players. 

After Gabriel Batistuta and Alan Shearer scored a penalty each, the game’s first truly iconic moment occurred on 16 minutes, when 18-year-old Michael Owen wrote himself into World Cup folklore, weaving through a spellbound Argentina defence before measuring an effort into the top corner to put the Three Lions in front.

As ever, with England, it’s the hope that kills you. In truth, that moment was as good as it got – and things unravelled spectacularly in a two-minute spell either side of half-time, with Javier Zanetti equalising on the stroke of half time, and David Beckham seeing red for an infamous kick out at pantomime villain Diego Simeone two minutes after the break.

England battled manfully with one fewer player, even having a goal disallowed at 2-2, taking all the way to penalties, with David Batty the unfortunate taker of the final missed spot-kick.

4. London 2012 Olympics Closing Ceremony. 24.46m. BBC One

To happier days, then, and the Closing Ceremony of an uplifting and inspiring home Olympics. As was only right after such a perfect Olympic summer, the Closing Ceremony was quite a spectacle. Clocking in at three hours and 11 minutes, the performance is also known by the name ‘A Symphony of British Music’, including several performances from successful British pop and music acts spanning several generations.

The Olympic Stadium, now leased by Premier League club West Ham United, was transformed into a giant visual representation of the Union Flag, and over 4,000 individuals participated in the £20m showpiece event.

3. 1970 FA Cup Final replay. Chelsea 2-1 Leeds United. 28.49m. BBC/ITV dual broadcast.

Yes, son, they used to have replays in the FA Cup Final – although this was the first such occurrence since 1912. Having drawn 2-2 at Wembley Stadium a fortnight earlier, both sides travelled to Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United, to contest a replay.

The game, known for the contrast in styles between Chelsea’s flair and Leeds’ uncompromising philosophy, became known as the ‘most brutal game’ in English football following an ugly and aggressive match. It was perhaps a sign of the times that, despite an array of blood-curdling challenges, referee Eric Jennings issued only one yellow card.

Perhaps that’s what made it such a compelling watch. In the end, the Londoners secured their first ever FA Cup victory 2-1 in extra time.

England manager Gareth Southgate
England manager Gareth Southgate led his team to the Euro 2020 final last year. Image credit: Belish/Bigstock.com

2.  UEFA EURO 2020 Final: England 1-1(p) Italy. 29.85m. BBC/ITV dual broadcast.

Just shy of 30 million sport-starved Englishmen, women, and children crammed themselves into reopened pubs, city squares, or in front of their television screens as Gareth Southgate led England to their first major final since 1966 against Italy – and the whole of the British Isles probably physically shook as Luke Shaw gave England a second-minute lead over Italy in the EURO 2020 (played in 2021) final.

It felt at that moment almost pre-ordained that England would finally end their wait for a major international trophy – the defeat of Germany earlier in the competition set the tone, before overcoming a Denmark side inspired by the near loss of Christian Eriksen in extra time. 

Alas, it was not meant to be, but what fun it was to dream.

1. FIFA World Cup Final: England vs West Germany. 32.3m. BBC/ITV dual broadcast.

“Some people are on the pitch! They think it’s all over…it is now!” Kenneth Wolstenholme’s unforgettable commentary seared into the consciousness of any English football fan, of whatever age.

Of course, the 1966 World Cup Final was going to take some beating, and it is probably no surprise to anyone to see it on this list. The reported viewing figure for England’s one and only major football trophy win was 32.3 million – outstripping any other broadcast, sporting or otherwise, in recorded history. The only other broadcast to clear 32 million is the funeral of Princess Diana.

What is perhaps more impressive, though, is that the population of England in 1966 was a little under 55 million, which means a smidgen under 59 per cent of the country were glued to their screens to witness a moment of national history.