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US World Cup absence could have wide effects

Published: 
Friday, October 13, 2017
United States’ Matt Besler squats on the pitch after losing 2-1 against Trinidad and Tobago during a 2018 World Cup qualifying match on Tuesday match. PICTURE AP

The 2018 World Cup will be a unique test of soccer’s appeal in the United States.

Will Americans still watch if their national team isn’t there? Fox certainly is hoping so.

The US failed to qualify for next year’s World Cup in Russia and the effects of that defeat to Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday night may be felt for quite some time. The team, and indeed the whole US Soccer Federation, faces a period of soul searching—but broadcasters, sponsors and tournament organisers also could feel the impact of the Americans’ absence.

Fox, which broadcasts next year’s World Cup, offered only a brief statement Wednesday— which did provide some insight as to how the network likely will promote a World Cup without the US.

“Last night’s World Cup qualifying results do not change FOX Sports’ passion for the world’s biggest sporting event,” the statement said. “While the US 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.”

Fans in the US are familiar with stars like Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar. Top European club teams now have American followings, which suggests that soccer in the US can withstand a short-term slump for the national team.

An estimated 26.5 million people in the US watched Germany’s victory over Argentina in the 2014 World Cup final in Brazil, and the 2018 final figures to be a major draw as well. But a US-Portugal match in the group stage of the 2014 tournament had 24.7 million viewers and that’s the type of interest that might be absent from earlier games in 2018.

“It’s going to hurt a little bit,” said Austin Karp, an assistant managing editor of SportsBusiness Daily. “You’re not going to have any build-up there toward the summer, with the US team playing either friendlies or talk about how the US team is going to do, promotion of the US team on Fox properties like baseball or other spring stuff they might have. The US matches were some of the strongest audiences for ESPN-ABC the last couple of iterations of the tournament. The final will still be okay.”

Fox broadcast the Women’s World Cup in 2015, but next year will be its first time carrying the men’s tournament since winning US English-language World Cup rights back in 2011. Now Fox’s 2018 tournament won’t have the Americans, and ratings for the 2022 event in Qatar could be affected by the fact that it is set to be held in November and December to avoid the searing summer desert heat, instead of its usual calendar spot midway through the year.

The US team’s failure to qualify for 2018 dented shares of Twenty-First Century Fox Inc. on Wednesday. The stock fell 66 cents, or 2.5 per cent, to $26.11. But concerns over Fox’s outlook may be overblown, according to a report from Pivotal Research Group. According to the group’s study, the US team accounted for about 20 per cent of ESPN’s total viewing for the 2014 tournament —a significant figure but not an overwhelming one. Fox certainly will miss having the Americans in 2018, but the US played only four games in Brazil last time.

“While it might make a difference for the lay viewer who is only going to watch the US games, that’s just a small subset of the total viewing,” said Brian Wieser, a senior research analyst for Pivotal Research Group.

So the show must go on for broadcasters and sponsors are trying to make the best of the situation as well.

(AP)