In qualifying for the 2022 FIFA World Cup with a 2-0 loss to Costa Rica, the U.S. men’s national team ensured its return to the global stage for the first time since a devastating 2-1 Round of 16 loss to Belgium eight years ago in Brazil. Having officially punched its ticket to Qatar, the young squad also has made life an awful lot easier for Fox’s sales and marketing teams, as Wednesday night’s result ensured a big turnaround on the ratings front.
When the USMNT failed to earn a bid to Russia four years ago, Fox Sports capo Eric Shanks remarked that their absence effectively flushed $200 million in rights fees down a vast metaphorical toilet. Casual fans skipped the event entirely, and in lieu of the huge deliveries Fox served up in 2014—the USA-Portugal Group Stage match scared up 18.2 million viewers on a summer Sunday, while the team’s two weekday clashes averaged 10.3 million viewers—the 2018 ratings were anemic. Fox’s highest draw in the opening round came courtesy of Mexico’s 2-1 defeat of South Korea, a Saturday morning match that averaged 4.44 million viewers.
All told, the 64-match 2018 tournament averaged 2.98 million viewers on Fox and FS1, which marked a 35% decline compared to the 4.56 million viewers ESPN and ABC delivered four years earlier. This marked the first time since 2002 that World Cup ratings had failed to improve over the previous cycle.
Aside from the outsized ratings the USMNT tends to put up during its own matches, the stateside enthusiasm for the 2014 team had a measurable impact on the rest of the bracket. The quarterfinal matches in Brazil averaged 5.55 million viewers, whereas the round’s deliveries fell 23% in the U.S.-bereft 2018 World Cup.
The tarnished-halo effect was particularly evident during the Final, when Fox’s coverage of France’s 4-2 win over Croatia averaged 11.3 million viewers, down 35% versus the analogous Germany-Argentina title match in 2014. On average, 6 million fewer viewers watched the most recent English-language broadcast of the World Cup Final, although a relatively disadvantageous kickoff time (11 a.m. ET in 2018 versus 3 p.m. ET in 2014) and the convergence of two global powers eight years ago likely contributed to the decline.
While the rules of soccer don’t allow for the steady drip of commercial breaks that punctuate (and disrupt) other televised sporting events, sponsorship entitlements and the available real estate in World Cup pregame, postgame and halftime shows should generate hundreds of millions of dollars in ad sales revenue for Fox and Telemundo. Per Standard Media Index estimates, when make-goods/audience deficiency units were accounted for, in-match commercial inventory generated $234 million in 2018. That number should be handily eclipsed with the U.S. back in the mix.
World Cup ad rates should be significantly higher with matches set to take place in the fall viewing window. Like Russia before it, Qatar bribed FIFA officials to secure hosting duties, allegedly greasing the wheels with $880 million in incentives that made it that much easier to overlook the fact that the average summer temperature in Doha is 106ºF. Confronted with the prospect of the world watching Lionel Messi succumb to heat stroke, cooler heads prevailed and shifted the 2022 tourney to autumn (Nov. 21-Dec. 18).
While the fall shift will have Fox scrambling to protect its football lineup—in order to keep the broadcast airwaves clear for Big Ten football and the NFL, weekend matches will air on FS1/FS2—the delayed World Cup will play out while far more Americans are plunked down in front of the tube. Per Nielsen, PUT levels, or People Using Television, are about 22% higher during fall weekends than is the case in the summertime, which should give Fox and Telemundo around 18 million more potential viewers to work with than would have been the case if the World Cup were to kick off in June.
The World Cup Final is set to take place at 10 a.m. ET in its customary Sunday broadcast window, allowing Fox to stage the match as a lead-in for its NFL doubleheader. Should Fox land the national NFL game on Dec. 18, the network will be the white-hot center of the fútbol/football universe for a good 10 hours.
An uncluttered ad environment and the deathless allure of live sports have made the World Cup a must-buy for endemics (and official FIFA partners) like Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Hyundai and Adidas. Financial services, tech and movie studio/streaming-video dollars are expected to pour in, while this could also be a big year for newcomers in the gambling and cryptocurrency spaces.
While no one expects the USMNT to be suited up a week before Christmas, the 2022 squad presents Fox with a fresh-faced, dynamic group that’s coming off big Gold Cup and Nations League victories. With a median age just shy of 24 years, this is the youngest U.S. team to qualify, and they’ve already gone a long way toward erasing the bad memories of their forebears.
We’ll know more about what’s in store for the U.S. team Friday afternoon, following the Group Stage draw and the subsequent release of the full match schedule. Look for the USMNT to be grouped with at least one high-ranking UEFA squad (France or England are likely candidates), as well as a mid-tier South American team and a rep from Africa. The draw ceremony will air live at noon ET on FS1 and Telemundo.