Fox Sports Hoping for World Cup Ratings Rebound

After posting decent ratings for the first week of its FIFA World Cup 2018 coverage -- without the presence of Team USA -- Fox Sports scored its strongest World Cup ratings this past Saturday, with three Saturday match telecasts averaging 3.8 million viewers, according to Nielsen.

Fox Sports’ coverage was paced by its Germany-Sweden telecast, which generated an English-language, FIFA World Cup 2018 tournament-high 5.3 million viewers, said Nielsen. The German victory was the most-watched non-U.S. Men’s World Cup Group Stage match on English-language television since at least 1990, according to Fox.

Prior to this weekend’s coverage, Fox Sports averaged 1.8 million viewers for the first eight days of World Cup telecasts across Fox broadcasting and FS1, which was down 27% from the 2014 Group Stage average on ESPN and ABC networks, not including matches featuring Team USA, which did not qualify for the 2018 Russia World Cup tournament. 

With Team USA telecasts included for prior World Cup tournaments, Fox Sports’ ratings are down 44% compared to 2014 and 30% when compared head-to-head with 2010’s tournament coverage. 

I had a chance to speak to Fox Sports executive vice president of research and content strategy Michael Mulvihill about the first eight days of Fox Sports’ World Cup ratings performances as well as the company’s expectations for the remainder of the tournament.

Has Fox Sports’ World Cup coverage performed up to expectations?

Fox Sports'  Michael Mulvihill

Fox Sports'  Michael Mulvihill

Look I think overall we're pretty pleased with the first now eight days of the tournament. I think we've been especially happy with the numbers we're seeing on the cable side from FS1. I would say in general the FS1 matches have exceeded my expectations and our expectations. Last week more people watched FS1 than any other sports cable network for an entire week. That's the first time that's ever happened, and that was on the back of not just the World Cup but also the U.S. Open. On the broadcast side we're about where we expected to be. I think things will get better as we get through the group stage and into the knockout round where the stakes of the matches become a little bit higher.

While you say you’re satisfied with the early ratings numbers, they are down from previous World Cup performances, with and without Team USA games included. How much has the absence of Team USA influenced ratings for the tournament thus far? 

Look, obviously it makes a significant difference. We've known that since the night that the US was eliminated last fall, so that doesn't come as any surprise. Clearly the two big challenges of this tournament are the absence of the U.S. team and the fact that it's being played on the other side of the world. In 2014 when the cup was played in Brazil, that was really an advantageous time zone for North American audiences. It's all a little bit of a challenge on two fronts, and because of that the declines that we're seeing from 2014 don't really come as any surprise. If you're willing to look a little further back compared to the group stage matches excluding the [Team USA game telecasts] in 2010 we're actually up 1%, and that was a World Cup played in South Africa. You can parse these numbers in a lot of different ways but it is a fact that we're down versus 2014. It's also a fact that everybody associated with this event knew that we would be down versus 2014 -- we knew it and the advertisers knew it. We all were going in with realistic expectations, and I think given the context of where the games are being played and the fact that U.S. isn't there, we're actually getting really good results.

You mentioned the stakes growing as you get into the knockout stage – are you guys personally rooting for any particular teams to help boost the numbers?

You can probably guess the teams that would be the most likely to drive viewership. Like in any sport, the traditional powers and traditional brands are probably going to be the greatest drivers of audience, which would mean Germany, Brazil, or France. I think England would be helpful. I think Mexico would be really helpful, and I think it would obviously be more than helpful to [2018 World Cup Spanish-language rights holder] Telemundo as well. So I think we've got some rooting interests, and I think the results that we've seen so far point to most if not all of those traditional brands getting through to the knockout stage.

Pictured, top: Anibal Godoy of Panama vies with Kyle Walker of England during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group G match between England and Panama at Nizhniy Novgorod Stadium on June 24, 2018 in Nizhniy Novgorod, Russia. (Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.