With or Without You: Despite USA's absence, World Cup still draws a crowd

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Hirving Lozano of Mexico celebrates after scoring his team's first goal during the World Cup group F match between Germany and Mexico on June 17, 2018.
Hirving Lozano of Mexico celebrates after scoring his team's first goal during the World Cup group F match between Germany and Mexico on June 17, 2018. Credit: David Ramos - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

More often than not, Americans who say they have no use for the world's most popular sport will cite the prevalence of matches that end in a draw. But as much as ties may be antithetical to our national sensibilities, the TV ratings for the 2018 FIFA World Cup suggest that soccer enthusiasts may even prefer the occasional deadlock.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, three of Fox Sports' four most-watched World Cup matches thus far have ended in a tie. Since the tournament began on Thursday, the biggest ratings driver was the Brazil-Switzerland match, a 1-1 draw that delivered 4.09 million viewers and a 2.3 household rating on the cable channel FS1. When live digital streams of the game were factored in, Switzerland's stunning Sunday afternoon draw with heavy favorite Brazil averaged a combined audience of 4.3 million viewers. (By way of comparison, the five-game 2018 Stanley Cup Final on NBC/NBCSN averaged 4.79 million viewers and a 2.7 rating.)

All told, the Brazil-Switzerland telecast was down just 7 percent compared to a comparable match of the 2014 World Cup.

Earlier that same afternoon, Fox scored its second-biggest World Cup audience as 4 million viewers tuned in for Mexico's literally earth-shaking 1-0 defeat of defending champs Germany. The Sunday morning match scared up a combined crowd of 4.25 million viewers on FS1 and Fox's digital services, which marked an increase of nearly one-quarter-million viewers compared to the analogous Switzerland-Ecuador match in 2014.

As expected, the Germany-Mexico match was a blockbuster for Spanish-language broadcaster Telemundo, which delivered a staggering 7.12 million viewers with its coverage of El Tri's huge victory. That audience swelled to an even more impressive 7.4 million viewers upon application of the various digital streams served up by the Telemundo and NBC Sports online properties. According to Nielsen, those deliveries mark the biggest turnout for a Group Stage World Cup match in the history of U.S. Spanish-language TV.

Mexico's against-all-odds win over Die Mannschaft not only set a ratings record for Telemundo, but was the catalyst for a celebration in Mexico City that literally triggered some faintly detectable seismic activity.

A pair of less conclusive matches accounted for Fox's third- and fourth-highest-rated World Cup telecasts. On Saturday morning, the broadcast flagship drew 2.97 million viewers (3.13 million with digital views tossed in) and a 1.9 household rating with its coverage of the historic Argentina-Iceland tie-up, while Friday's frantic Portugal-Spain draw averaged 2.92 million viewers and a 1.9 rating.

Iceland is the smallest nation ever to qualify for a berth in the World Cup. According to RÚV, Iceland's national broadcast service, 99.6 percent of all televisions in use at the time were tuned in to Saturday's match, which promoted striker Alfreð Finnbogason to joke that "the other 0.4 percent was on the pitch!"

Altogether, more than 10 million viewers tuned in for the three ties, which if nothing else suggests that our avowed distaste for ambiguous outcomes may be somewhat exaggerated.

Through the first 14 matches, Fox's World Cup coverage is averaging 2.08 million viewers and a 1.3 household rating, down 49 percent compared to the first five days of the 2014 tournament. That deficit drops to -42 percent upon elimination of the USA-Ghana match from four years ago; per Nielsen, the U.S. team's white-knuckle 2-1 victory averaged a then-record 11.1 million viewers on ESPN.

In the same window, Telemundo is averaging 2.1 million TV-only viewers, down 45 percent versus Univision's comparable deliveries of four years ago. When its streaming numbers are blended into the TV data, Telemundo's World Cup coverage is currently averaging 2.35 million viewers.

While Fox undoubtedly will be stung by the USA's absence throughout the month-long World Cup, advertiser demand for a live sports event of this magnitude remains strong. Last week, Fox execs said the 48 Group Stage matches were completely sold out and only a very limited supply of inventory remained available in the eight Knockout Round broadcasts.

Among the biggest investors in Fox's World Cup coverage thus far include marquee sponsors Volkswagen and Verizon. According to iSpot.tv data, other big spenders in the tournament are Adidas, Ford, Bud Light, BMW, Gatorade, Google, Universal Pictures, McDonald's and Pepsi. Telemundo's boldest backers include official halftime sponsor Sprint and prime-time sponsor Volkswagen, as well as automakers Toyota and Nissan. As with Fox, Ford, McDonald's and Universal Pictures are well-represented during Telemundo's Copa Mundial coverage.

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