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For US fans stuck at work, a streaming milestone

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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) -- The first two U.S. games at this World Cup kicked off at favorable times for watching on television back home.

The Americans' group finale Thursday will be smack in the middle of the workday. The match against Germany, which could determine whether they advance to the knockout round, starts at noon on the East Coast, 9 a.m. out west.

U.S. fans' surging interest in the country's World Cup fortunes, and the surging comfort level with watching games online and on mobile devices, come together Thursday in what could be a milestone for live streaming.

Sunday's 2-2 tie with Portugal set records for WatchESPN, which allows subscribers who receive the network on their pay TV to stream the game for free. The average audience per minute was 490,000, with a total of nearly 1.4 million viewers.

But that match was played on a weekend evening, when it was easy for Americans to gather in front of the TV. It was watched by a record 18.2 million people on ESPN, and another 6.5 million on Spanish-language Univision.

''The good news is that at the end of the day tomorrow, it will be a great event, just like Sunday night was an event,'' ESPN senior vice president Ryan Spoon said in a phone interview Wednesday.

Portugal's tying goal in the last minute of stoppage time prevented the U.S. from clinching a spot in the knockout round. Now the Americans need at least a draw against mighty Germany to ensure they advance; they could still move on with a loss depending on the result of the game between Ghana and Portugal played at the same time.

Indeed, even if fans get in front of a TV on Thursday, they still may use another device to keep an eye on the other Group G match.

ESPN's research has shown that many people now routinely use multiple screens to follow the action, and they use the same apps across multiple devices, Spoon said. They may check scores on an app on their phone, view in-game highlights on a laptop, or watch a live stream on a tablet.

Through 40 games, WatchESPN telecasts have averaged 720,000 live unique viewers, up 139 percent from 2010. At the time of the last World Cup, the iPad had been available for only a few months. Meanwhile, Spoon said, ESPN's and other networks' live-streaming products have gotten easier and easier to use.

A hint of the potential for Thursday's game comes from last week's match between Brazil and Mexico, played on a Tuesday afternoon. With huge interest among Mexican-Americans, Univision Digital had 1.6 million unique viewers.

Unlike ESPN, Univision Digital doesn't require a pay TV subscription at this stage of the tournament. So it should also draw a big streaming audience Thursday, with plenty of viewers who don't speak Spanish.

Through 36 games, Univision Digital was averaging 1.2 million live streams per match, a 197 percent increase from the 2010 World Cup.

Spoon, who oversees digital products, was presenting at the Google developer conference Wednesday in San Francisco. The ESPN booth was quite popular, he said - partly because attendees wanted to watch the live streams of the World Cup games on display.

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