U.S. World Cup ab­sence could have wide-rang­ing ef­fects

Texarkana Gazette - - SPORTS - By Noah Tris­ter

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 is cer­tainly 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 could also be im­pacted by the Amer­i­cans’ ab­sence.

Fox, which broad­casts next year’s World Cup, of­fered only a state­ment Wed­nes­day—which did pro­vide some in­sight as to how the net­work will likely 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, 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 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 will cer­tainly 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—over 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 had oc­ca­sion­ally 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 Rus­siaU.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.”

AP Photo/Re­becca Black­well

United States' Chris­tian Pulisic, right, is com­forted by a mem­ber of the team staff af­ter the U.S. lost to Trinidad and Tobago in their World Cup qual­i­fy­ing match Tues­day at Ato Boldon Sta­dium in Couva, Trinidad and Tobago.

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