The worst nightmare has come true for FOX Sports’ coverage of the 2018 FIFA World Cup. The United States has failed to qualify for the tournament for the first time in 32 years.
Earlier this year, FOX Sports President Eric Shanks joked that if the US Men’s National Team didn’t qualify for the 2018 World Cup “that would [be] like $200 million flushed down the toilet [for FOX Sports].”
While it was a joke at the time, it’s no laughing matter after the United States crashed out of World Cup qualification on Tuesday night with a woeful defeat against Trinidad and Tobago in front of a half empty stadium. In the United States’ place, Panama qualified for the World Cup while Honduras leapfrogged the US into a playoff qualification spot.
The USA’s failure is a killer blow to FOX Sports’ hopes of generating massive TV viewing numbers for the tournament. At the same time, it makes FOX Sports’ job that much harder to try to hit any promises the sports network has made to sponsors. FOX has already inked deals with several major advertisers, but it’s going to be tougher than ever for them to fulfill the commercial inventory if far fewer people will be watching.
FOX Sports recently announced that it’ll be sending a record number of production staff (450) to broadcast the World Cup directly from Russia, as well as building an elaborate two-storey set in Red Square, Moscow. The costs that FOX Sports budgeted for the tournament were no doubt made when they assumed that the United States would qualify for the competition.
In 2011, FOX Sports paid roughly $500 million for the rights to World Cup 2018 and 2022. Without the United States participating, the value of those 2018 rights has suddenly plummeted. And the prospect of a 2022 World Cup played in the desert in Qatar during the winter doesn’t hold much promise for FOX Sports either.
Once the dust has settled, expect FOX Sports to start their PR spin to try to position the US failure as a disappointment but not a cataclysmic result. As we’ve already seen since last year, FOX Sports has hitched their wagon to the Mexico national team to try to help their TV ratings, positioning El Tri as “America’s second team.” For fans of the US Men’s National Team, Mexico is one of the last countries on the globe that US fans would want to support.
After Tuesday night’s disastrous result for the United States, the real winner in the early stages of the World Cup TV ratings battle is Telemundo Deportes, the new Spanish-language rights holder to the World Cup. If anyone will see a big gain in viewing numbers next summer, it’ll be Telemundo with the inclusion of Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama and possibly Honduras — all Spanish-speaking countries with passionate fans, many of whom live in the United States.