World Cup soccer TV audiences have reawakened from their slumber during the tournament four years ago in Korea and Japan, but with fewer games being shown on free TV, viewership is still down from 1998. Through the first 11 matches of this year’s World Cup in Germany, television audiences around the globe are up 21 percent from 2002, according to data released today by media buying firm Initiative, but are 10 percent off the figures from the 1998 competition in France which provides a similar time-zone comparison. “One of the most important reasons for the figures against the 1998 audience is that there is an increasing number of matches broadcast on cable and satellite rather than on free-to-air TV,” said Kevin Alavy, the Initiative analyst compiling the global viewership figures.

This World Cup is the first to have games being shown on the Internet and on mobile phones, though the effect on TV viewership is still unknown. In the UK, the BBC is broadcasting many of the matches for free over broadband, and Hutchison Whampoa’s 3 is streaming all 64 to its mobile customers in Italy, but neither would disclose audience figures. The World Cup is typically the most-watched event in the world, with an audience of more than 5 billion expected over the month-long tournament this time.

Viewership figures suffered in 2002 because the matches were played in South Korea and Japan, meaning they were often shown live early in the morning in Europe and Latin America. While time zones are not an important factor affecting TV audiences this year, the broadcasters that acquired the rights have been. For example, in Portugal, the games shown on free-to-air channel SIC have been drawing an average audience of 1.6 million, Alavy said, while those shown on pay channel SportTV have had only about 13,000.

The business proposition is different for pay-TV operators, which buy rights to popular sports events to lure new subscribers, while free-to-air broadcasters need to attract audiences big enough to satisfy advertisers. ”Too much football does not help free-to-air TV,” said Filippo Lo Franco, a media analyst for Exane BNP Paribas, adding that other types of programming can often draw more viewers than some of the less popular World Cup teams. ”Free-to-air broadcasters should concentrate on only those matches that attract the largest audiences,” he said, notably home team matches and those of internationally popular squads such as Brazil.

In Spain, World Cup viewership was down 66 percent from 1998, Initiative said, because the games this year are being shown on free-to-air broadcaster La Sexta, which just launched in March and reaches only 55 percent of the population. La Sexta, owned by Globomedia and Mexico’s Televisa, is sharing rights to some of the key matches with Sogecable’s free-to-air channel Cuatro.

Another reason for the boost in viewership from 2002, has been the dearth of one-sided contests that have typically marred the tournament’s early stages. ”Generally speaking, the matches so far all have been fairly competitive,” Alavy said. “The narrowing of the gap between the best and worst teams makes it more appealing. When there’s a high degree of competitive balance, viewer interest goes up.”

Initiative’s data - and the comparative figures from past World Cups - is based on TV audiences in 27 markets which include Germany, Italy, France and Britain. It will ultimately have figures from more than 50 TV markets. With that caveat, this year’s opening match between Germany and Costa Rica attracted a live audience of 63 million, 30 percent more than the 48 million who tuned in for France vs. Senegal to kick off the 2002 tournament. In the same 27 markets, the 1998 opener between Brazil and Scotland drew 75 million viewers, according to Initiative, a unit of New York-based advertising conglomerate Interpublic Group of Cos Inc.

When all the data is compiled, the firm said it expects the total global audience for the 2006 opener to be more than 150 million viewers. In the United States, approximately 3.1 million households tuned into Disney’s ABC network for the opening weekend’s matches in the country’s top 56 markets. while Spanish-language broadcaster Univision averaged about 2.6 million viewers. By comparison, the tournament’s opening match drew about 6.4 million viewers in Poland, a country with a population not much more than one-tenth that of the United States.