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 U.S. failed to qualify for next year's World Cup in Russia when it lost at Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday night, and the effects of that defeat may be felt for quite some time. The team, and indeed the whole U.S. Soccer Federation, faces a period of soul searching - but broadcasters, sponsors and tournament organizers 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 U.S.
“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 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.”
Fans in the U.S. are familiar with stars like Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar. Top European club teams now have American followings, which suggests that soccer in the U.S. can withstand a short-term slump for the national team.
An estimated 26.5 million people in the U.S. 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 U.S.-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 buildup there toward the summer, with the U.S. team playing either friendlies - or talk about how the U.S. team is going to do, promotion of the U.S. team on Fox properties like baseball or other spring stuff they might have. ... The U.S. matches were some of the strongest audiences for ESPN-ABC the last couple of iterations of the tournament. The final will still be OK.”
Fox broadcast the Women's World Cup in 2015, but next year will be its first time carrying the men's tournament since winning U.S. 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 U.S. 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 percent, 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 U.S. team accounted for about 20 percent 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.
“Like all American soccer fans, we are disappointed the team will not be participating in the World Cup, but still recognize the huge growth opportunity for soccer in the U.S.,” said Ricardo Marques, a vice president of marketing for Budweiser. “As the official beer of the World Cup and a longtime FIFA partner, Budweiser will continue to tap into our fans' passion for soccer here and globally.”
Over in Russia, meanwhile, the reaction to the U.S. ouster was muted. American fans have attended the World Cup in droves recently - more than 200,000 tickets for games in Brazil were purchased by U.S. residents. FIFA said Tuesday that the U.S. was among the top 10 countries for ticket applications so far for 2018, along with other non-qualifiers like China and Israel. Some applications by U.S. residents are likely to have been made by supporters of other teams, such as Mexico.
Still, many in Russia focused instead on the failure to qualify of neighboring Ukraine, which occasionally had threatened to boycott the tournament over Russia's backing for separatist groups in eastern Ukraine. Vyacheslav Koloskov, the Russian Football Union honorary president, said the United States' absence was a missed opportunity to improve Russia-U.S. relations.
“The non-participation of the U.S. reduces the chances of players, and indirectly of American fans, to see the transformations taking place in our country,” he told Russian agency R-Sport.
Koloskov added that the U.S. team was “nothing special” and so its absence “won't have any effect on our World Cup in a sporting sense.”