The 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia served as an intriguing test of soccer interest in the United States. Without a U.S. team to cheer for, would viewers stay away? Would they gravitate to the Mexican team? How would Fox and Telemundo, two newcomers to World Cup broadcasts, perform?
In the end, viewership trends revealed a resilient interest in the World Cup, especially among English-speaking viewers, and a strong preference for Latin American teams among Spanish-speaking viewers.
The final between France and Croatia drew 11.3 million viewers on Fox and 4.7 million on Telemundo, according to data from Nielsen. Both were down, Fox by 19 percent, Telemundo by 45 percent, compared with what ABC and Univision respectively drew for the 2014 championship.
Across the tournament, Fox and its cable network Fox Sports 1 trailed ESPN and ABC’s 2014 average viewership by 29 percent. NBCUniversal’s Telemundo was off by 39 percent compared with Univision (excluding the eight group-stage games that aired on NBC’s Universo this year and on Univision’s TeleFutura in 2014).
Declines were to be expected. Not only did the U.S. team fail to qualify for the tournament, depriving Fox of its most reliable draw, but start times were earlier than four years ago, with some games beginning in the morning on the East Coast. Plus, the media landscape has continued to fracture since 2014.
“The world is more competitive now than it was four years ago,” said Ed Desser, a sports TV rights consultant in California. Both networks started slowly this year, with matching 37 percent declines compared to 2014. Fox, however, picked up steam as the tournament went on. “The first week of the tournament was a little softer than expected,” said Michael Mulvihill, Fox Sports’s executive vice president of research, league operations, and strategy. “If the first week under-performed, the last couple weeks over-performed.”
Even without a U.S. team to root for, English-language viewers gravitated toward the tournament—regardless of who was playing. “We had this idea that stars, like Ronaldo, Messi, and Neymar were going to drive the tournament,” said Mulvihill. “I think we learned that the World Cup makes stars, not the other way around.”
Telemundo, on the other hand, saw its viewership flatten once the last of the Latin American soccer powers flamed out in the quarterfinals. Without them, Telemundo averaged just 2.7 million viewers across the semifinals, final and third-place game, less than half Univision’s audience for the same games in 2014, which featured Argentina and Brazil. (Fox fell short of ESPN/ABC’s pace by 15 percent in the same set of matches.)
“I think we would have had 20 million people if Mexico was in the final,” said Telemundo Deportes President Ray Warren. “Give me a Brazil or Argentina and Uruguay and the number on the final would have been higher.”
Still, the network hit all of its ratings targets, said Warren, and fulfilled its commitments to advertisers. Telemundo expects to make $225 million in ads off the games themselves and more than $300 million when you factor in the ad impact on other programs. “We’re going to be ahead of expectations,” Warren said.
In 2011, Telemundo agreed to pay about $600 million for the Spanish-language rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Fox paid less—roughly $400 million—for the English package. NBCUniversal was willing to pay a premium in large part to gain ground against market leader Univision, and in this regard, Warren said, the tournament was a “home run.”
The World Cup coincided with the best 32-day performance in Telemundo history, attracting about 7 million prime-time viewers who hadn’t watched the network in at least a month. For two weeks, it was the most-watched Spanish-language network among adults aged 18-49. “Once you have the World Cup, everybody watches it, and they’ll see other parts of the company that we promoted during the game,” said Warren.
Fox likewise saw benefits for Fox Sports 1, the cable network it launched in 2013, to compete with ESPN. (FS1 is not part of the 21 Century Fox assets included in a pending sale to Disney, ESPN’s parent.) “I thought it was a milestone event in the development of FS1 as a national brand,” said Mulvihill. The network had its most-watched MLB regular season window ever, he said, while ratings for the US Open golf rose 6 percent over last year and the network’s studio shows also gained.
With 2018 behind them, both Fox and Telemundo now look ahead to 2022 in Qatar. Three years ago, FIFA moved the tournament from summer to fall to avoid the extreme heat. The change puts the World Cup in the middle of a busy time in the U.S. sports calendar, with the NFL, NBA, and college football all in full swing, instead during a summer lull.
For Fox, which carries NFL and college football games, the specifics of the schedule will be critical in determining whether the Qatar World Cup complements or conflicts with its other programming. The crowded calendar is less of an issue for Telemundo, said Warren.
“That becomes a bigger problem for our English-language competitor than it does for us,” he said. “We’ve got this clear lane of Spanish-language viewers who are not going to be watching much football anyway.”
To make up for the scheduling change, FIFA allowed the two networks to buy the rights to the 2026 tournament in a closed auction. Last month, soccer’s global governing body voted to the hold the event in North America, creating a potential ratings bonanza for U.S. broadcasters, especially if the U.S. and Mexican teams advance deep into the tournament.“Expectations are very aggressive very optimistic,” said Mulvihill. “I think the final of that World Cup could be a 40 million-viewer event.”