Soccer's Post-World Cup Challenge: How to Keep Ratings Momentum

Randall Slavin for Adweek

ESPN and Univision post big gains, and U.S. star Tim Howard earns endorsement riches, but momentum-killers are coming.

This story first appeared in the July 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

By most measures, except perhaps those of Brazilian soccer fans, the FIFA World Cup has been a tremendous success. But the gains in TV ratings and interest in the once-ignored sport in the U.S. have evolved into questions about whether the momentum can be sustained.

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ESPN-ABC and Univision, which reached a respective 115 million and 82 million U.S. viewers during the monthlong soccer tournament, rightfully are doing a victory lap thanks to massive ratings gains versus 2010. But the July 13 championship game marked a passing of the torch. Rivals Fox Sports and Telemundo hold exclusive broadcast rights to the 2018 and 2022 tournaments in Russia and Qatar -- something the networks paid for with a little more than $1 billion.

And while the 2014 U.S. team created a crop of stars, more than half of them are returning to clubs outside of the U.S.' Major League Soccer -- including breakout goalkeeper Tim Howard. "We're seeing the World Cup attain a kind of Olympic stature. … It's the flag and country first, and then, by the way, it's also a sport," says former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson, who now runs a consulting company. "It's not going to double MLS ratings or attendance, but it will continue to establish soccer as a participatory, spectator and television sport here."

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As evidenced by ESPN's 39 percent World Cup growth from 2010 and a near doubling of 2006's average viewership, soccer's footprint is growing steadily, and not just among Latinos. The immediate challenge for broadcasters airing MLS (ESPN) and other leagues is holding the interest of newer fans before Cup fever evaporates. NBC Sports, which has U.S. rights to the English Premier League when it returns in August, started early. Within a day of the U.S. team's July 1 elimination, the network was running promos featuring Howard with a message teasing, "You don't have to wait every four years to see saves like these."

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"That's how you take advantage of it," NBC Sports programming president Jon Miller tells THR. "You seize on the moment and acknowledge that people love great players -- and that they can watch them every Saturday and Sunday morning." NBC Sports Network's first year covering the EPL, when it frequently enlisted Howard for the press box, more than doubled the total viewership seen during its last season on ESPN, ESPN2 and Fox Soccer. (Howard, the most recognizable member of the U.S. team, is set to build on his modest endorsement gigs with Nike and McDonald's; he's nearing deals with a reported three national advertisers.) But individual game ratings remain modest compared with American sports, due in part to the early times for telecasts.

Troubling time zones also could prevent the next two World Cups from matching the ratings highs of 2014. A key factor in viewership records for Brazil was its close proximity to the U.S. But Russia's matches in 2018 will be played in locales seven to 10 hours ahead of the East Coast. Expectations naturally have been curbed, though some point to the solid performance by the recent Winter Olympic Games in Russia as reason to breathe easy. NBC's Olympics, however, largely were viewed on tape delay, something soccer fans will be less likely to tolerate.

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Still, even if recent lofty highs aren't duplicated, Fox Sports' $400 million rights play is considered a big vote of confidence in the game, which reaches a younger and more multicultural audience than other sports. The conglomerate hopes to use the Cups to help fledgling cable net Fox Sports 1. By the end of its first full calendar year, the network will be in 92.8 million homes with an average subscriber fee of just $0.68, according to SNL Kagan.

(ESPN, by comparison, is in 97.7 million homes with an unrivaled $5.54 subscriber price tag.)

"If you can increase Fox Sports 1 to $1 a sub fee in 100 million homes with the help of the World Cup, that's a good investment," adds Pilson. "Sports is an asset builder."