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The World Cup kicks off Nov. 20 in Qatar, and while the event itself is surrounded by geopolitical controversy and intrigue, its TV partners in the U.S. are betting that a confluence of events (Lionel Messi’s last World Cup, the U.S. national team scoring a favorable draw) could not only bolster their bottom lines, but propel soccer fandom in the U.S., with North America set to host the event in 2026.
Fox Sports has the English-language rights, with games set to air on Fox and Fox Sports 1, while Telemundo Deportes has Spanish-language rights, with games set to air on Telemundo, Universo, and on Peacock.
Unusual timing for the event — the tournament is usually held over the summer, but Qatar’s climate necessitated a shift to November — could hinder or help each network, as they navigate NFL rights (Fox has a Sunday afternoon game, and Telemundo has Sunday Night Football), but also seek to use the crowded schedule to drive awareness of the event.
For Fox, that means all eyes are on Black Friday, Nov. 25, in what is shaping up to be the biggest match of the first round (at least for English-language viewers), when the U.S. takes on England.
“We are treating it like a national holiday, we are treating it like a Super Bowl Sunday,” Fox Sports executive producer David Neal told The Hollywood Reporter at a World Cup preview event in New York.
That means extensive promotions during Fox’s Thanksgiving day NFL game, as well as on Fox News. There’s even a Fox soccer balloon set to fly during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
“We are really going to build towards that game, and then we are really going to hope that the U.S. advances in the tournament,” Neal adds.
Fox’s soccer analysts, like Alexi Lalas, are bullish on the game (Lalas predicted it will deliver a “monster number” in the ratings), but also the U.S. chances of advancing out of the first round.
“The U.S. is going to be put in the position of being the underdog [which is where they are comfortable],” Lalas said.
Having the U.S. in the tournament “is a great luxury,” Neal says, especially compared to 2018’s tournament in Russia, which the U.S. sat on the sidelines for. However, Fox was able to learn from that experience, to try and create compelling stories about other teams.
“We are going to try and make a lot of storytelling gold out of those other matchups,” Neal says.
“Four years ago we learned a lot of lessons in terms of how to put on an event without the U.S. I think it is one our finest moments,” he added.
Chief among them this year is Messi, the Argentinian legend, who will make his last appearance in the tourney this year. “That’s the biggest story for us as much as almost anything frankly,” says Ray Warren, the president of Telemundo Deportes.
And while Fox is leaning into the big Black Friday U.S.-England game, Telemundo is pushing to rebrand Thanksgiving for its own purposes.
“Our fan base is just much broader ethnically and we have to serve all of them, including the U.S.,” Warren says. “U.S.A-England is going to be huge for us too, just from a pure soccer event, but on Thanksgiving Day, which is what are kind of coining ‘Dia de Futbol’ we have four World Cup games, and Thanksgiving night [NFL] football.”
And both companies have a few tricks up their sleeve.
Fox is betting that tis futuristic set on the Corniche in Doha will draw in fans with an all-LED pitch, ultra high-definition screens and other technological innovations.
“It will be visible from Mars,” Neal jokes, calling it “the most high-tech piece of technology you will have ever seen on television.”
And Telemundo, meanwhile, is betting on Peacock, which will be the easiest place to stream World Cup games live in the U.S. (in Spanish only, of course … Fox will stream full match replays on Tubi).
And Telemundo is betting that its audience will tune in with big numbers.
“Lots of people watch the NFL every week, not so much the Spanish language version,” Warren says. “So you know, we’re pretty confident that gobs of Spanish language viewers will watch the World Cup. during those [NFL] time periods.”
Regardless of what happens on the pitch, the World Cup will be big business for both networks, with Guggenheim analyst Michael Morris predicting $125 million in ad revenue at Fox alone (Fox and Telemundo combined brought in about $225 million in 2018).
But if the U.S. advances past the first round, or there’s a final that includes Messi and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo … watch out.
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