When Fox Sports spent more than $400 million in 2011 to outbid ESPN for the rights to the four FIFA World Cup tournaments from 2015 to 2022, it never expected its first men’s World Cup wouldn’t include the U.S. team, which was eliminated from contention last October.
But as the 2018 World Cup semifinals begin today, the company says it has rebounded from that early stumble and that the tournament is on track to be an ad revenue success, even without a U.S. team for its viewers to root for.
Fox expects to top ESPN and ABC’s U.S. TV ad spend for the 2014 World Cup, which Kantar Media estimated at $187 million.
“With four games left [today and Wednesday’s semifinals, Saturday’s third-place match and Sunday’s final], we did as good a job as we could have ever hoped,” said Mike Petruzzi, svp of ad sales, Fox Sports.
There are just two ad slots left for Sunday’s final, with spots going for as much as $750,000, which Fox says is the highest unit cost for a soccer game in U.S. history.
It’s been an unexpected comeback after a rocky start to the tournament. Fox Sports’ ratings for the group stage were down 42 percent compared with ESPN and ABC’s broadcast of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, which is more time zone-friendly than Russia and included the highly rated games with the U.S. team, but have rebounded as momentum increased this year.
That culminated with Saturday’s quarterfinal matches, which averaged 5.7 million viewers on Fox—a 15 percent increase from four years ago—led by the Croatia-Russia game, which averaged 6.3 million linear viewers and 6.6 million when streaming numbers were factored in, making it the most-watched World Cup quarterfinal match in the U.S. since at least 1990.
Those numbers give Fox high hopes for today’s France-Belgium semifinal at 2 p.m. and Croatia-England on Wednesday at 2 p.m., as well as Sunday’s final.
Once the tournament moves into the knockout stage, “you get the buzz and awareness, and then those games can really go off the charts for you,” Petruzzi said. “It’s been exciting, it’s been dramatic, the host team [Russia] moved on to rounds that people didn’t expect, and we’ve been able to capitalize on that.”
The biggest surprise so far for Petruzzi is that Croatia has been involved in both of this year’s highest-rated World Cup matches (in addition to Sunday’s quarterfinal, its round of 16 win over Denmark on July 1, which was also decided by penalty kicks, drew 5.9 million viewers). “That’s not something any of us expected,” Petruzzi said. “It’s a testament to the buzz and the fact that people get caught up in the World Cup madness.”
The ‘quick pivot’ to Plan B
Petruzzi, who oversaw World Cup ad sales for Fox Sports, said he had to make a “quick pivot” in October when the U.S. men were eliminated from the World Cup. “We changed our internal approach in terms of estimates and ratings, knowing that we had expected to have the U.S. men competing in at least three games, if not hopefully four, out of the 64 [total World Cup matches],” said Petruzzi, who sold World Cup inventory on the adults 18-49 demo, aggregating live viewing, out-of-home and digital ratings.
That caused Fox Sports to reduce its ratings estimates by 10 percent, putting it closer to 2010’s tournament, which took place in South Africa, than 2014’s. (Fox Sports’ marketing team also had to adjust its strategy after the U.S.’s surprise tournament exit.)
The semifinals sold out, and Fox is looking to sell the last two units for the final without a ratings guarantee, Petruzzi said. “We’ve had some offers, but we’re trying to hold out for the highest offers possible once the matchups are set on Wednesday,” especially if France and England end up in the finals.
Fox Sports is using inventory in its ancillary World Cup programming, including pre- and postgames and late-night shows, for any makegoods from those earlier-round games.
Even before the U.S. team had been eliminated last fall, Fox Sports had locked in its biggest World Cup brand partnerships with Verizon, which sponsored all halftime shows, and Volkswagen, which sponsored the postgame shows. “Those positions were coveted and are big branding opportunities for them. So those folks came in early,” Petruzzi said.
That was followed by a wave of FIFA partners and other “soccer-relevant advertisers” like Adidas, Petruzzi said.
Closer to the tournament, Fox Sports made deals with unexpected brands like Wish, which built a campaign around soccer stars whose teams didn’t qualify for the World Cup, as well as movie studios and tech companies like Google, Amazon and Apple.
“We transacted more business closer to the tournament because that’s how a lot of these clients are approving and doing business. There’s not as much being done a year out,” Petruzzi said.
While out-of-home viewing, which provides ratings lifts of anywhere from 25 to 35 percent, has been in line with Fox’s projections, World Cup streaming has exceeded expectations.
“Our digital streaming is up almost 100 million impressions from what we initially estimated, which is phenomenal. So a lot of our deals are sold across both platforms, so the delivery is aggregated across both, which is great for us,” Petruzzi said.
All told, Fox Sports has had 2 billion minutes of live match consumption, representing 8 percent of its combined linear and digital minutes for the games. A pair of Brazil matches accounted for the most-streamed Fox Sports games: Brazil-Belgium had an average per minute audience of 615,000, and Brazil-Mexico averaged 592,000 viewers.