The absence of the U.S. national soccer team may have robbed Fox of as many as 40 million FIFA World Cup viewers, but a series of thrilling matches in the late rounds of the tournament have gone a long way toward boosting the network's overall ratings.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, Fox put up big numbers with its coverage of this week's semifinal round, averaging 5 million viewers over the course of the France-Belgium and Croatia-England matches. That marks a mere 6 percent decline compared to ESPN's average draw of 5.3 million viewers during the 2014 World Cup semis; note that both measurements include the respective pre-game windows. (When assessing only the in-game windows, ESPN's telecasts of the semis from four years ago averaged 6.73 million viewers.)
That Fox managed to come within 300,000 viewers of ESPN's record-breaking coverage is remarkable, considering how badly the network's TV ratings lagged during the earlier rounds. Per Nielsen, Fox Sports' coverage of the 48-match Group Stage—26 games aired on Fox's broadcast network and 22 were carried by the cable channel FS1—averaged 2.07 million viewers and a 1.3 household rating, which was down 41 percent compared to ESPN's analogous run in 2014 (3.54 million viewers, 2.2 rating).
Of course, it's worth noting that ESPN had the benefit of presenting three Group Stage matches featuring the U.S. team. That trio of telecasts averaged 12.9 million viewers, thanks in large part to a Sunday afternoon U.S.-Portugal draw that delivered a staggering 18.2 million viewers. When the U.S. squad's telecasts are factored out of the equation, Fox's Group Stage deliveries were down by 28 percent versus 2014 (2.86 million viewers, 1.8 household rating).
In failing to secure a World Cup for the first since 1986, the U.S. team erased as much as 15 to 20 percent of Fox's projected ad sales revenue for the tournament, although the damage almost certainly was limited to the team's three hypothetical Group Stage matches. Barring a fortuitous seeding a la the historically weak Group A, which included Saudi Arabia, Egypt, overachieving host nation Russia and a surprisingly lackluster Argentina, the watered-down U.S. squad would not have been favored to advance to the Knockout Stage. (The 2014 team's 2-1 loss to Belgium in the Round of 16 delivered 16.5 million viewers.)
Speaking of the Knockout Stage, it was there that Fox's fortunes began to take a turn for the better. Three of the eight Round of 16 matches were settled by penalty kicks, which only served to keep fans glued to their screens. Russia's shocking July 1 victory over Spain averaged 5.1 million viewers and a 3.1 rating on Fox, while Croatia's gutty shoot-out defeat of Denmark later that afternoon scared up 5.9 million viewers and a 3.5 rating.
While Fox undoubtedly rued the early exits of traditional powerhouses Portugal and Argentina, the scrappy Croatia has somehow made up for the absence of the superstars Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. In vanquishing Russia via penalty kicks in the quarterfinals, Croatia can lay claim to taking an active role in serving up Fox's largest World Cup audience to date; in fact, the 6.3 million viewers who tuned in for its shootout with Russia topped the combined TV and digital audience for Croatia's 2-1 win over England in Wednesday's semifinal match (6.2 million).
Should recent history prove to be any guide, Fox may expect anywhere from 15 million to 17.5 million viewers to tune in for its broadcast of Sunday's Final. Croatia looks to become only the ninth nation to win the World Cup, although it will have to get past 1998 champion France if it wants to secure a place in soccer history.
Advertisers who would like to put their message in front of Sunday's audience will have to move quickly, as buyers say that Fox is very close to having sold out the Final. According to Fox ad sales executives, the going rate for a 30-second spot in the France-Croatia match has exceeded $750,000 a pop, making it the all-time priciest buy for a stateside soccer broadcast. That's a significant premium over ABC's $587,500 ceiling in the 2014 World Cup Final, and a clear indication that Fox isn't exactly losing its shirt on the soccer showcase.
According to iSpot.tv estimates, Fox's biggest World Cup backers include official postgame sponsor Volkswagen and halftime sponsor Verizon, as well as Google, Apple, Ford, Geico, Progressive, McDonald's, Pepsi and Universal Pictures ("Skyscraper," "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom," "The First Purge").
If Fox's World Cup ratings have improved in recent weeks, Spanish-language broadcaster Telemundo is facing a bit of a crunch. In the wake of Mexico's July 2 ouster and the subsequent elimination of South American giants Uruguay and Brazil, Telemundo heads into Sunday's Final without a rooting interest.
If Telemundo's France-Croatia coverage is unlikely to draw anywhere near the 9.2 million viewers that tuned in to Univision for the 2014 Argentina-Germany Final, the NBCUniversal-owned network is on pace to surpass its stated revenue goal of $225 million for this year's World Cup. According to Standard Media Index data, that far exceeds the $177 million in ad sales revenue Univision generated four years ago.
Among the most visible advertisers in Telemundo's World Cup coverage are postgame sponsor Coca-Cola, halftime sponsor Sprint and Volkswagen, the presenting sponsor of the network's primetime highlights show. Also investing millions of dollars in the Spanish-language broadcasts are McDonald's, Ford, Toyota, Walmart, Universal Pictures, Powerade and the Anheuser-Busch brand Estrella Jalisco.
Coverage of the France-Croatia Final begins Sunday at 11 a.m. EDT on Fox and Telemundo. The third-place consolation match between Belgium and England kicks off an hour earlier on Saturday morning.