$400 million. That’s how much Fox Sports paid to wrestle the English-language World Cup broadcasting rights away from ESPN. That total includes both the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, but Fox’s plans for the 2018 edition took a massive hit last night when the United States was eliminated from contention by Trinidad and Tobago, a country trumped in population numbers by Hawaii.
“The World Cup is still the greatest sporting event on earth,” said Fox Sports president Eric Shanks prior to Tuesday night’s match, “but clearly for us it’s a different tournament if the U.S. isn’t in it.” It’s now a different tournament.
According to Nielsen, 120 million people in the U.S. watched the 2014 tournament in Brazil. Ratings for ESPN continuously soared as the USMNT progressed to the Round of 16 in 2014. An average of 16.491 million viewers watched the U.S. take on Belgium on ESPN, second-most behind the 18.22 million that tuned in to watch the U.S. play Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal in the group stage.
Outside of these two matches, 11.1 million watched the opener against Ghana and 10.8 million watched the final group stage match against Germany. Those massive numbers will be gone next summer.
"It's bad for Fox Sports," said Sports Business Daily assistant managing editor Austin Karp. "They were already going to be lower than 2014 on ABC/ESPN/ESPN2 with the time zone difference, but now that drop will be exacerbated. There will be much less buzz headed into the summer...Fox Sports also could now have the lowest English-language World Cup average since maybe 2002 in Japan/South Korea. Topping 2006 from Germany would be a win for them."
— FOX Sports PR (@FOXSportsPR) October 11, 2017
According to Steven Cahill, an RBC Capital Markets analyst, the U.S. defeat “is a blow to Fox Sports’ soccer ambitions. Had the U.S. made it, Fox would have televised at least three group stage games with potential for more if the team made it into further rounds.”
With over 350 hours of programming planned around the World Cup come June and July, Fox Sports is now approaching its largest network production ever without its main talking point. The main protagonist has been killed before the first chapter.
As for U.S. Soccer corporate partners Coca-Cola, AT&T, Anheuser-Busch, Johnson & Johnson, Nike and Liberty Mutual Group, well, you can be certain that they’re none too pleased with what they saw on the pitch last night. They'll need to get in line.