Without the U.S. team in the 2018 World Cup, Fox Sports projects it will lose $10 million to $20 million in advertising sales, according to a person close to the company.
The projection is lower than some outside estimates. Fox has already sold about 75 percent of its advertising inventory, which will mitigate the absence of the U.S., said the person, who asked not to be identified discussing private information. The broadcaster paid $400 million for the English-language U.S. rights to broadcast the next two editions of the soccer tournament.
Another person familiar with Fox Sports said the number will probably turn out to be higher, at around $50 million.
Shares of parent company 21st Century Fox Inc., which had dropped on the U.S. team’s failure to qualify for the tournament on Oct. 10, inched higher on Bloomberg’s report. They were down 2.2 percent to $26.18 at 9 a.m. today.
Fox’s acquisition of World Cup rights, a deal announced in 2011, seemed like a sure thing at the time. Soccer continues to get more popular in the U.S., and live sports content has been one of the few areas of programming keeping viewers tuned in to live television.
Fox also had no reason to think the U.S. team would fail to qualify for the first time since 1986. Even after a few stumbles in the early rounds of qualifying, the U.S. team entered the last round of games with a 93 percent chance to qualify. But a shocking loss to Trinidad on Tuesday, paired with wins by Panama and Honduras, knocked the U.S. out of the running.
The World Cup’s popularity in the U.S. is deeply tied to the performance of the men’s national team. In the 2014 tournament, an early-stage match between the U.S. and Portugal drew more viewers than either semifinal. Two of the three most-watched matches that year featured the U.S., and though the team was eliminated before the quarterfinals, its games made up 20 percent of the U.S. viewership.
“Last night’s World Cup qualifying results do not change Fox Sports’ passion for the world’s biggest sporting event,” Fox said in a statement. “While the U.S. was eliminated, the biggest stars in the world from Lionel Messi to 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.”
Without the U.S., early-stage games on Fox will probably draw about half the audience, according to independent media consultant Brad Adgate. It’s like having the small-market Minnesota Twins and Colorado Rockies playing in the World Series, he said: “I just don’t think it resonates with anyone but the most hardcore fans.”
The absence of the U.S. team will drive away casual viewers and the advertisers that want their money. Because Russia is hosting, games will air at what for a U.S. audience will be odd hours.
“The one thing that Fox has done is they have locked in some advertisers earlier in the sales process than I know ESPN historically would have,” said John Guppy, founder of Gilt Edge Soccer Marketing. “The fact that they have been able to get commitments earlier, I think is going to help them in the sales goals that they are trying to hit.”
In addition to adjusting its marketing to emphasize the appeal of soccer’s biggest global stars, Fox will feature Mexico, Argentina, and Colombia in an appeal to Hispanic viewers. Unfortunately for Fox, many of those viewers may opt to watch on Comcast Corp.’s Telemundo, the broadcaster that paid $600 million for the Spanish-language U.S. rights to the next two Cups.
The lack of U.S. participation in 2018 compounds problems Fox is facing with the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, which was moved to winter to avoid the Middle Eastern country’s harsh summer temperatures. That change means the tournament will compete for viewers with the NFL, NBA and NHL, another bad result for Fox.
Fox will have a chance to make up some of those losses in 2026, which has a lot going for it: It’s a bigger tournament and North America is likely to be the host. What’s more, the company agreed in a closed bidding process to pay $300 million for the games (with a $180 million bonus if the U.S. hosts), a price discounted by as much as $500 million to compensate for the Qatar schedule change.