US World Cup ab­sence could have huge ef­fects

The Arizona Republic - - Azcentral Sports - 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 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.”

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