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VANCOUVER/WINNIPEG, June 10 (Reuters) - Global television audiences for the Women's World Cup in Canada bounced sharply higher in the opening days of the tournament and merchandise flew off the shelves, underscoring the growing popularity of the beautiful game.
Some 3.3 million Americans tuned in to watch Team USA's opening win against Australia, FIFA said on Wednesday, three times the number who saw its opener in Germany four years ago.
In China, viewership nearly doubled for the country's first game while 16 percent more Japanese - 4.2 million - watched their defending champions beat Switzerland in the opener than watched them in the semifinals in the last tournament.
A showdown between France and England drew roughly 1.5 million viewers in each country, a third more French viewers than last time.
The figures, while far below the average official rating of 188.4 million viewers per game in the men's World Cup in Brazil last year, highlights the growing momentum in the women's game.
Women's soccer has played second fiddle to the more lucrative men's game but the bribery scandal surrounding FIFA, the sport's governing body, and hopes for a U.S. triumph close to home has spurred interest in a section of the sport less drenched in money.
"The reason people sponsor sport is to connect to the ideals of sport," said Wade Oosterman, president of BCE Inc, a major sponsor and parent of the event's broadcaster, Bell Media.
"It's the joy of the game, it's competition, it's integrity and fair play, it's all those positive attributes - and thank God the Women's World Cup represents those in spades."
U.S. prosecutors indicted nine current or former FIFA officials and five corporate executives on corruption charges on May 27.
As the scandal broke, the spotlight turned to the Women's World Cup as games got underway in five Canadian cities last week, bringing an unintended benefit to an overlooked sport.
More than 1.5 million fans are expected, nearly double that seen in Germany in 2011, which had fewer games, as tickets sell out.
Graphic on FIFA Women's World Cup groups
Graphic on FIFA Women's World Cup schedule
Overall more than 8.6 million Canadians have tuned into watch during the opening three days of the tournament, more than triple the 2011 audience.
On the ground, sports bars in New York and Los Angeles filled up for the first U.S. game, while lineups for merchandise at games in Edmonton and Winnipeg snaked hundreds of meters as fans stood for hours to get a t-shirt or hat.
"I have been 10 years in the business and every year it is growing," said Aftab Hadi, owner of Robson Sports, which sells licensed team sports jerseys, caps and scarves on Vancouver's main shopping street a few blocks from the soccer stadium.
"The Canada team shirt is the most popular selling item here. The ladies and youth sizes I had to re-order as it was sold."
Official Women's World Cup soccer balls, which cost C$159 each ($128) are almost sold out, he said.
The auspicious start for the U.S. team, ranked second by FIFA behind Germany, could help build support for the American women, much like the men's team did when they reached the knock-out stages of the World Cup finals in Brazil last year.
Even so, the attention paid to the women's game does not yet match the focus on men's soccer.
Joe Wendt, manager of a River City Sports store near Winnipeg's stadium, said Canadian women's soccer apparel has sold well during the tournament - but only about half as well as gear for men's teams usually does.
The store stocked a smaller amount of American merchandise earlier, but it quickly sold out, he said.
Additional reporting by Alastair Sharp in Toronto and Steve Keating in Edmonton; Writing by Alastair Sharp and Andrea Hopkins; Editing by Bernard Orr