Fox Sports Says Its World Cup Has Been an Ad Revenue Success, Even Without the U.S. Team

Company expects to top ABC and ESPN’s haul from 2014

Croatia's penalty kick victory over Russia on Sunday was the most-watched World Cup match yet, with 6.6 million viewers on linear and streaming.
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When Fox Sports spent more than $400 million in 2011 to outbid ESPN for the rights to the four FIFA World Cup tournaments from 2015 to 2022, it never expected its first men’s World Cup wouldn’t include the U.S. team, which was eliminated from contention last October.

But as the 2018 World Cup semifinals begin today, the company says it has rebounded from that early stumble and that the tournament is on track to be an ad revenue success, even without a U.S. team for its viewers to root for.

Fox expects to top ESPN and ABC’s U.S. TV ad spend for the 2014 World Cup, which Kantar Media estimated at $187 million.

“With four games left [today and Wednesday’s semifinals, Saturday’s third-place match and Sunday’s final], we did as good a job as we could have ever hoped,” said Mike Petruzzi, svp of ad sales, Fox Sports.

There are just two ad slots left for Sunday’s final, with spots going for as much as $750,000, which Fox says is the highest unit cost for a soccer game in U.S. history.

It’s been an unexpected comeback after a rocky start to the tournament. Fox Sports’ ratings for the group stage were down 42 percent compared with ESPN and ABC’s broadcast of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, which is more time zone-friendly than Russia and included the highly rated games with the U.S. team, but have rebounded as momentum increased this year.

That culminated with Saturday’s quarterfinal matches, which averaged 5.7 million viewers on Fox—a 15 percent increase from four years ago—led by the Croatia-Russia game, which averaged 6.3 million linear viewers and 6.6 million when streaming numbers were factored in, making it the most-watched World Cup quarterfinal match in the U.S. since at least 1990.

Those numbers give Fox high hopes for today’s France-Belgium semifinal at 2 p.m. and Croatia-England on Wednesday at 2 p.m., as well as Sunday’s final.

Once the tournament moves  into the knockout stage, “you get the buzz and awareness, and then those games can really go off the charts for you,” Petruzzi said. “It’s been exciting, it’s been dramatic, the host team [Russia] moved on to rounds that people didn’t expect, and we’ve been able to capitalize on that.”

The biggest surprise so far for Petruzzi is that Croatia has been involved in both of this year’s highest-rated World Cup matches (in addition to Sunday’s quarterfinal, its round of 16 win over Denmark on July 1, which was also decided by penalty kicks, drew 5.9 million viewers). “That’s not something any of us expected,” Petruzzi said. “It’s a testament to the buzz and the fact that people get caught up in the World Cup madness.”

The ‘quick pivot’ to Plan B

Petruzzi, who oversaw World Cup ad sales for Fox Sports, said he had to make a “quick pivot” in October when the U.S. men were eliminated from the World Cup. “We changed our internal approach in terms of estimates and ratings, knowing that we had expected to have the U.S. men competing in at least three games, if not hopefully four, out of the 64 [total World Cup matches],” said Petruzzi, who sold World Cup inventory on the adults 18-49 demo, aggregating live viewing, out-of-home and digital ratings.

That caused Fox Sports to reduce its ratings estimates by 10 percent, putting it closer to 2010’s tournament, which took place in South Africa, than 2014’s. (Fox Sports’ marketing team also had to adjust its strategy after the U.S.’s surprise tournament exit.)

The semifinals sold out, and Fox is looking to sell the last two units for the final without a ratings guarantee, Petruzzi said. “We’ve had some offers, but we’re trying to hold out for the highest offers possible once the matchups are set on Wednesday,” especially if France and England end up in the finals.

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