On the heels of two consecutive ties against El Salvador and Canada, the banged-up U.S. Men’s National Team on Wednesday earned its first victory of the World Cup qualifiers, thumping Honduras by a score of 4-1. And while Gregg Berhalter’s squad halted its early skid, the prospect of Team USA missing out on a second straight FIFA showcase may still be gnawing away at stateside advertisers.
As much as Fox Sports has already sold a good chunk of the in-game inventory, another USMNT disappearing act would hamper scatter sales and overall ratings for the coming World Cup. “Revenues are locked in from a rights fee perspective, and on the ad sales side, much of the inventory has been sold,” said media rights consultant Dan Cohen, a senior vice president at Octagon, who emphasized that Fox has the English-language rights sewn up through 2026. “However, what inventory remains to be sold will be impacted greatly depending on whether the U.S. qualifies.”
Scatter sales, which are sold at a higher rate to position a product at the last minute, are particularly noteworthy, as ad units in top-tier sporting events often fetch premiums between 15% and 20% over the pricing set in the previous upfront bazaar.
As the most recent FIFA World Cup revealed, casual American fans tend to tune out when the USMNT is a no-show. (Before the 2018 event, when the men’s team failed to qualify by a single point, the U.S. had appeared in seven straight World Cup tournaments.) Without a rooting interest, Americans largely lost interest in the event, and the average draw for all 64 matches fell 37% to 5.04 million viewers across the Fox networks and Telemundo. That marked a loss of 3 million viewers compared to the analogous deliveries when Disney and Univision carried the World Cup in 2014.
Predictably enough, the diminished stateside audience was a drag on in-match ad sales revenue. According to Standard Media Index estimates, sponsors spent approximately $225 million across the Fox networks and Telemundo, a decline of 29% from the $319 million Disney and Univision booked four years earlier. In-match audience deficiency units accounted for much of the shortfall.
The top advertisers in the 2018 World Cup included FIFA’s marketing partner Coca-Cola and top Fox sponsors Volkswagen and Verizon. The automaker served as the presenting sponsor of all 64 postgame broadcasts, while Verizon backed the halftime shows.
As much as the USMNT is still favored to advance through to Qatar, the recent stumbles still weigh heavily on the minds of the event’s media partners. Perhaps no one was more shocked to see the men’s team fold in 2017 than Fox Sports CEO and executive producer Eric Shanks, who at the time was so confident in the squad’s prospects that he joked about the impact their absence would have on his bottom line. Speaking to a gathering of GroupM account execs during Fox Sports’ April 2017 upfront road show, Shanks cracked that a USMNT-free World Cup would amount to “$200 million flushed down the toilet.”
Fox in 2011 paid some $425 million to unseat Disney as the English-language rights holder over a 15-year contract while NBCUniversal’s Telemundo out-bid incumbent Univision to the tune of $600 million. Four years later, in what was seen as a compensatory gesture designed to smooth over the logistical headaches of holding the 2022 tournament in Qatar, FIFA inked a surprise extension with its U.S. media partners. The deal was not made public until after it had been signed, and no other networks were invited to bid on the expanded package. As it happens, the updated Fox/Telemundo contracts end after the 2026 World Cup, which will be held in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
Should the USMNT maintain its momentum and move on to Qatar, the TV networks may still face more than a few ratings challenges in 2022. As NBC’s muted deliveries during the Tokyo Olympics showed, a significant time zone lag can wreak havoc with the ratings for even the biggest international sporting events. So while Brazil is effectively aligned with the Eastern time zone, Qatar is seven hours ahead of the New York-to-Washington megalopolis, and a full 10 hours ahead of the Pacific time zone.
“I think it’s hard to beat the Brazil [World Cup],” Ricardo Fort, founder of Sport by Fort Consulting, said during a phone interview. The 2014 Rio event was the most-watched, highest-rated World Cup in U.S. TV history. “Qatar is going to be kind of like Russia.”
Also complicating matters is the calendar shift of the 2022 World Cup, moving from its customary summer perch to fall after the collective realization that a soccer tournament in a desert clime where the afternoon temperature in June and July reaches 109°F might not be optimal. While the switch to the fall should prove far less taxing on the players and spectators, next year’s Nov. 21-Dec. 18 schedule will fly straight into the teeth of regular-season college and NFL football games, traditionally the strongest-rated programming on U.S. television.
According to Fort, there’s more than ratings and ad sales revenue riding on the USMNT’s quest to qualify for next year’s tournament. Specifically, FIFA’s stateside marketing efforts for the 2026 event depend on the full participation of the home team. “FIFA has to sell domestic sponsorships in the U.S. the day after the final [in Qatar],” Fort said. “So if the U.S. qualifies for 2022, that will give a boost to FIFA’s sponsorship sales in the U.S.”
FIFA earns about 90% of its revenue from broadcasting, sponsorship and marketing deals tied to the World Cup. The world’s most prominent soccer entity earned $3.1 billion in broadcast sales worldwide for the 2018 tournament alone.
“An interesting wrinkle to Qatar is that while sponsors are generally ‘down’ on this World Cup edition, FIFA has been packaging U.S. rights for 2026 into the offering when U.S. and Mexico have guaranteed spots,” Cohen said. “I imagine [the impact of] a U.S. loss … would be blunted a bit due to the way advertising and sponsorship is being sold.”