NEW YORK — Last month at a glitzy event on the West Side of Manhattan, a sanguine gathering thrown by Fox Sports to mark the nominal start of its marketing campaign for the World Cup 2018 coverage, United States Men’s National Team coach Bruce Arena offered some reassuring words to a roomful of well-dressed advertisers and media buyers.
“I will tell you this: We’re going to be there, and I’m going to miss all this great Fox coverage,” Arena said.
That promise evaporated on a Tuesday night in Couva, Trinidad and Tobago. On the most surreal and embarrassing night in U.S. soccer history, as SI writer Grant Wahl wrote, the U.S. men’s national team lost 2-1 to Trinidad and Tobago and was eliminated from contention for World Cup 2018.
Hyperbole is the drug of choice these days in the sports media but the loss is a disaster for Fox Sports. Disaster. That is the correct word. The World Cup is a momentum tournament over its 64 broadcasts and the U.S. broadcaster needs the national team in the tournament because it establishes a huge audience early on for those games. It also attracts viewers who are not traditional soccer watchers.
Here was ESPN’s viewership for the U.S. games during the 2014 World Cup:
U.S. vs. Belgium (July 1, 2014): 16.5 million
U.S. vs. Germany (June 26, 2014): 10.8 million
U.S. vs. Portugal (June 22, 2014): 18.2 million
U.S. vs. Ghana (June 17, 2014): 11.1 million
These kind of viewership numbers are now gone for the early part of the Russia tournament. The 2014 FIFA World Cup ranked as the most-viewed World Cup ever on English-language TV in the United States. ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC combined to average 4,557,000 viewers for the 64 matches, up from 3.273,000 viewers in 2010. It’s simple math: Take away the U.S. team, and the tournament average goes way down.
Nothing will change with Fox Sports’ production, which is the largest in the network’s 24-year history. The network will air 350 hours of World Cup programming including half of the games airing on over-the-air FOX. There will be more matches on broadcast television than the last four World Cups combined. Daytime and late-night studio coverage will air from a set in Moscow’s Red Square. There will be three studio shows—World Cup Live (airing at 6 a.m. ET); World Cup Today (prior to matches) and World Cup Tonight (airing after matches). The network said it will air 15 original series on FOX Sports Go and has partnered with National Geographic for a multi-platform visual experience. But the dollars lost will be huge. The Group Stage represents 48 of the tournament’s 64 matches. That is a ton of advertising inventory.
“Fortunately, the ad sales team has locked in two keystone sponsors in Verizon [halftime shows] & VW [postgame], but the rest of the inventory will be a tough sell,” said Anthony Crupi of Ad Age.
At the World Cup launch party last month, Fox Sports president Eric Shanks told SI that his network would market the Mexican national team—El Tri—as Fox Sports’ second team during the tournament. (The team’s coach, Juan Carlos Osorio, appeared on stage in New York for the Fox presentation.) Fox Sports owns the English-language rights to the Mexican National Team in the United States and with the U.S. now eliminated, look for Shanks & Co. to spend even more marketing dollars and heft on El Tri, given the potential audience. That is the right strategy given the huge number of El Tri fans in the U.S. The marketing will also likely shift to a much heavier push earlier on international stars such as Leo Messi of Argentina, Neymar of Brazil and Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal. Fox will compete at the World Cup with Telemundo, which owns the Spanish-language rights to the World Cup.
Said Shanks at the event: “They [the U.S.] are going to make it but regardless of the results of them qualifying, we were pretty open about our plans. We are embracing El Tri and we have since the Confederations Cup. We have the Gold Cup every two years. I think this country going from a sporting event to a cultural event, you have people just rooting for the U.S. But I think this country has evolved from a soccer fandom where they are super interested in Neymar, Messi, Ronaldo. If you were a soccer fan in the world, this would be the place for you to live. You get more world class soccer here. This is a soccer country.”
“It's bad for Fox Sports,” said Sports Business Daily assistant managing editor Austin Karp, one of the foremost sports television ratings experts in the States. “They were already going to be lower than 2014 on ABC/ESPN/ESPN2 with the time zone difference, but now that drop will be exacerbated. There will be much less buzz headed into the summer. The World Cup final will do an okay number, but the group stage and early knockout rounds take a hit without the U.S. A Mexico run could help, but Telemundo would be the biggest beneficiary from that. Look for Telemundo's average viewership for the first entire tourney to now rival Fox/FS1/FS2. Fox Sports also could now have the lowest English-language World Cup average since maybe 2002 in Japan/South Korea. Topping 2006 from Germany would be a win for them.”
Both Shanks and David Neal, the executive producer of Fox’s FIFA World Cup coverage, said Fox Sports learned a lot of lessons from their coverage of the Women’s World Cup, one of the best productions the network has done. Fox Sports aired all 52 games from the tournament—with 16 matches on big FOX, including the third-place match and the final. They aired shoulder programming prior and after matches, and even if you did not like the on-air talent, you could not question the commitment to the tournament.
“I think we proved we are more than qualified custodians of this property,” said Neal, after the conclusion of that tournament. “I think people can look at us with high expectations and that’s what they should have. They should look to our coverage of the 2018 World Cup and think, ‘OK, you did very well the first time out of the gate in 2015 in Canada,’ and then they should expect we will exceed our own performance.”
Not all is lost. Soccer is far more popular in the U.S. in 2017 than 2010 and the numbers for the Russia final will still be robust. The Germany-Argentina 2014 World Cup final drew 17.981 million viewers on ABC and online. That will be similar on Fox. But the pain felt early is going to be severe. On Wednesday morning a Fox Sports spokesperson tried to put the best light on a dark morning.
“Last night’s World Cup qualifying results do not change Fox Sports’ passion for the world’s biggest sporting event,” said a spokesperson. “While the U.S. was eliminated, the biggest stars in the world from Lionel Messi to Cristiano Ronaldo stamped their tickets to Russia on the same day, and will battle teams ranging from Mexico to England that have massive fan bases in America. The World Cup is the greatest sporting event on earth that changes the world for one month every four years, and Fox Sports remains steadfast in our commitment of bringing the games to America for the first time in 2018 and will continue to support the U.S. Soccer Federation as they look ahead to the 2022 World Cup.”