In failing to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the U.S. Men's National Team not only dumped a barrel of ice-cold Haterade all over Fox's shot at pulling a huge ratings number next summer, but it forced the network to radically reconfigure its coverage strategy. And while the broadcaster has had something of a contingency plan in place should the not-so-unthinkable happen, there's no way to overstate just how crushing a blow this development is for Fox.
The U.S. squad's mortifying 2-1 loss Tuesday night to CONCACAF cellar dwellers Trinidad and Tobago brought an end to a wholly uninspiring qualifying round in which it managed to win just three of its 10 matches. And while the defeat and subsequent elimination from the World Cup marks an absolute nadir for U.S. Soccer, in the near term at least, Fox Sports is likely to suffer more collateral damage.
Given that the 2018 tourney is to be held halfway around the world in Russia, Fox was already at bit of a disadvantage. Moscow lies eight hours ahead of New York and nearly a half-day in front of Los Angeles, so a match that kicks off at 4 p.m. local time would begin at 8 a.m. on the east coast and 5 a.m. in L.A. Earning big ratings at that time of day isn't quite as automatic as sinking a penalty kick.
But the loss of the U.S. is almost certain to eliminate the casual fans that help pump up the ratings. In 2014, ESPN averaged 12.9 million viewers with its coverage of the three U.S. knockout stage matches, of whom nearly one-third were in the adults 18-to-49 demo that advertisers like best. The U.S. team's near-upset of Portugal was the biggest draw, scaring up 18.2 million viewers, a tally that included 9 million members of the target demo.
Instead of those beefed-up deliveries, Fox will have to get by on the sort of ratings ESPN/ABC notched in the 2014 World Cup -- 3 million to 4 million viewers for the non-U.S. group stage telecasts and between 5 million to 6 million for the knockout stage. Of course, gross ratings points are cumulative, so the numbers eventually will add up for Fox, which isn't exactly getting the job done with its prime-time entertainment programming. Through the first two weeks of the 2017-18 broadcast season, Fox is averaging just 3.8 million viewers and a 1.2 rating in the demo, which works out to just 1.55 million adults 18 to 49.
The specter of the U.S. team's elimination was never far from the minds of top Fox executives. Over the course of the rocky qualifiers run, some higher-ups treated the subject with the gallows humor that informs the sports-media space. In an April upfront presentation to buyers from GroupM held shortly after the U.S. hung up a commanding 6-0 win over Panama, Eric Shanks joked that Fox may have dodged a bullet.
"We're really relieved now that the U.S. looks like it's actually going to qualify for the World Cup in 2018," said Shanks, who serves as president, chief operating officer and executive producer of Fox Sports. "Because that would have been, like, $200 million flushed down the toilet." Shanks obviously was joking, but in his follow-up remarks he made it clear that Fox's coverage plans were elastic enough to adapt to even the present nightmare scenario.
Already geared up to try to lure a good deal of Hispanic soccer fans away from the Spanish-language World Cup rights holder Telemundo, Fox could bulk up its World Cup deliveries by going all-in on its coverage of Team Mexico. Not only did Shanks promise GroupM execs that Fox would "cover the Mexican national team as if it's our second home team," but the network will deploy Mexico City native Francisco X. Rivera and the Argentine broadcaster Fernando Fiore in the booth throughout the tournament.
Shanks also told the assembled GroupM buyers that Fox had come away from its coverage of the triumphant 2015 Women's World Cup with a keen sense of how to activate every niche from the soccer aficionado class to Gen Z. "Teenagers are the first generation to actually have soccer fandom passed down from their parents -- which is the first generation of soccer fans in this country," Shanks said, before adding that one of the advantages of the teen soccer fan is that they don't have nearly as many obligations in the summer as they do during the school year. "Through our streaming products, through our linear television, that audience is absolutely available in the time frame that we need them to be available," he said.
According to Sports & Fitness Industry Association estimates, some 11.9 million Americans are active outdoor soccer players, of whom 7.33 million are between the ages of 6 and 17 years old. The remainder fall within the parameters of the main sports TV demos.
In a statement released Wednesday, Fox put a brave face on its World Cup prospects, averring that the qualifying results "do not change Fox Sports' passion for the world's biggest sporting event." The memorandum went on to note that while the U.S. had been knocked out of the big dance, superstars like Argentina's Lionel Messi and Portugal's 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."
Fortunately for Fox, the ad sales team already has done much of the heavy lifting. Last month, the company announced that it had locked in three-quarters of its marquee sponsorships, including a deal that gives Verizon bragging rights as the official halftime sponsor of each of Fox Sports's 64 World Cup matches. Volkswagen will handle the postgame duties throughout the tournament. Meanwhile, more than a dozen advertisers have suited up for commercial inventory around the matches and at the half.
If there's a silver lining to be found in any of this, it's that Fox probably wasn't going to have a shot at cashing in on a lengthy U.S. run. It's nearly impossible to imagine that the same U.S. team that fumbled so badly throughout the qualifiers was going to advance past the group stage; in other words, the immediate impact of the U.S. ouster is a net loss of three games. (ESPN lucked out with the dynamic 2014 squad, which punched through its Germany/Portugal/Ghana bracket to earn a knockout stage match with Belgium. Although U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard played the game of a lifetime, the Yanks went down 2-1 in front of a national TV audience of 16.5 million viewers.)
Should Messi or Ronaldo make it through to the final match on Sunday, July 15, Fox should at least come away with a strong TV turnout. Four years ago, ABC's broadcast of Germany's 1-0 victory over Argentina averaged 17.3 million viewers, making it the most-watched World Cup final in U.S. TV history. Of course, that audience wasn't in the same ballpark as the all-time record 25.4 million viewers Fox delivered on July 5, 2015, with its presentation of the US Women's Team's decisive 5-2 win over Japan. (As we've seen time and again with the Olympics, America prefers to back a winner.)
Fox's presentation of the 2018 World Cup kicks off in Moscow on June 14. While the company hasn't disclosed its revenue targets, the score to beat is the record $529 million that ESPN pocketed in ad sales with its coverage of the 2014 tourney in Brazil.