The Most-Watched Sporting Events in UK TV History

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England's progress through the rounds at Euro 2020 has made their games some of the most watched sporting events of all time in the UK.

England captain Harry Kane celebrates England's Euro 2020 win against Denmark.

There are not many things that can capture the attention of a nation as much as a great sporting event, and television has allowed millions of people across the UK to come together over the years to watch some of the country’s proudest sporting moments unfold on screen.

It is safe to say the UK is a country full of sporting lovers, with millions of people having tuned into the television to watch not only some of the most iconic moments in British sporting history, but also events that have transcended the world over.

All the below events rank not only as the most-watched sporting occasions in UK television history, but also as some of the most-viewed programmes of all time.

7 – 2012 Summer Olympics Closing Ceremony (24.46 million viewers)

The 2012 Summer Olympics took place in London and there was plenty of anticipation around the country ahead of the Games, with 24.24 million people tuning in to watch the Opening Ceremony.

However, that total was even greater for the Closing Ceremony 16 days later, with the country keen to celebrate what had been a fantastic Games for Team GB, who finished third in the medals table.

That success was personified by ‘Super Saturday’ midway through the Games, when Jessica Ennis-Hill, Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah all won gold medals during an unforgettable 44 minutes at the Olympic Stadium.

In total, Great Britain won 29 gold medals, the most the country has ever collected at a Summer Olympics and that success is one of the main reasons so many opted to tune in for the Closing Ceremony.

6 – The Rumble in the Jungle: Ali vs. Foreman (26 million viewers)

Muhammad Ali is one of the biggest names in sporting history and it was no surprise to see the BBC name him their Sports Personality of the 20th Century.

One of Ali’s most memorable fights was his infamous Rumble in the Jungle with George Foreman in October 1974, with millions of people in the UK tuning in to watch a fight that was taking place thousands of miles away in Zaire.

Ali was the underdog going into the fight against previously unbeaten world heavyweight champion Foreman, but that did not stop ‘The Greatest’ from claiming a knockout victory, as he put his opponent down towards the end of the eighth round.

The fight was watched by an estimated one billion people worldwide, with 26 million of those coming from the UK.

5 – Fight of the Century: Ali vs. Frazier (27.5 million viewers)

Three years prior to the Rumble in the Jungle, Ali was involved in another eagerly anticipated fight, as his bout with Joe Frazier was the first time that two undefeated boxers had ever fought each other for the heavyweight title.

A reported 27.5 million people in the UK tuned in to watch Frazier win the fight via unanimous decision after 15 rounds, although it proved to be the first of a trilogy of bouts between the pair, with Ali winning the other two in 1974 and 1975.

4 – Euro 2020 Semi Final: England v Denmark (27.6 million viewers)

England’s march through the Euro 2020 competition attracted increasing numbers of viewers as the tournament progressed. England was among the favourites before the competition began, and a fortuitous draw helped their group of undeniably talented players to make relatively serene progress to the semi-final.

Denmark proved to be ruggedly difficult to beat in the semi, and the match was tied at a goal apiece after 90 minutes. As England began to dominate against the wearying Danes, a somewhat controversial penalty earned by Raheem Sterling gave captain Harry Kane the opportunity to score from the spot in the 14th minute of extra time.

A nation held its breath as Kane’s unconvincing penalty was parried by Danish net-minder Schmeichel, but the England captain was first to the rebound to score what would prove to be the decisive goal of the contest.

The final is expected to provide even bigger viewing figures, with England available at odds of 6/4 to triumph over Italy.

3 – 1970 FA Cup Final Replay: Chelsea v Leeds United (28.49 million viewers)

Chelsea and Leeds United contested the 1970 FA Cup final and they could not be separated during their first match at Wembley, with the 2-2 draw meaning a replay was needed for the first time since 1912.

The two teams were considered among the best sides in England at the time, Leeds having finished second and Chelsea third in the First Division standings that season.

The match was also billed as being a contrast in styles, with Leeds seen as the uncompromising northerners, while Chelsea were regarded as flamboyant southerners.

The replay was played at Old Trafford and nearly 29 million people tuned in to watch Chelsea win the FA Cup for the first time, as goals from Peter Osgood and David Webb saw them come from behind to triumph 2-1.

2 – 2020 European Championships Final: England v Italy (30.95 million viewers)

It was penalties heartbreak for England once again as Italy prevented football from ‘coming home’ when they outscored their rivals by 3 to 2 in the shoot-out. So a spirited campaign ended in defeat for England, but the team endeared themselves to the nation along the way.

Viewing figures peaked at just under 31 million for the final, with 80% of viewers choosing to watch Gary Lineker host proceedings on the BBC, while just 20% tuned in to Mark Pougatch and company on ITV.

1 – 1966 FIFA World Cup Final: England v West Germany (32.30 million viewers)

“Some people are on the pitch! They think it’s all over! It is now, it’s four!”

That is the famous quote from BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme, as Geoff Hurst completed his hattrick to help England secure a 4-2 victory over old rivals West Germany at Wembley on their way to winning their first, and so far only World Cup.

As many as 32.20 million people tuned in to watch that final, although not everyone would have heard Wolstenholme’s legendary line, as many were also watching on ITV.

That total makes the 1966 World Cup final not only the most-viewed sporting event in UK TV history, but it also drew the biggest audience of any television programme ever watched in the country – a record that is unlikely to be beaten.

A fountain of knowledge on football, Tom offers a particular in-depth expertise in EFL and European leagues.
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