Despite U.S. Loss, Fox Sports Expects World Cup to Keep Surging

Jurrien Timber of the Netherlands battles for the ball with Christian Pulisic of USA during the Round of 16 - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 match between Netherlands and USA at the Khalifa International Stadium on December 3, 2022 in Doha, Qatar
The U.S.-Netherlands Round of 16 World Cup match drew nearly 13 million viewers to Fox. (Image credit: Pablo Morano/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Fox Sports on Saturday drew nearly 13 million viewers for its United States-Netherlands World Cup game, but will now have to finish its tournament coverage without arguably its biggest draw after the U.S. lost 3-1 and was eliminated from competition.

The audience for Saturday’s U.S.-Netherlands knockout-stage match was up 163% from Fox Sports’ 2018 round of 16 average from Russia, which averaged 4.9 million viewers, the network said. The U.S.-Netherlands audience peaked at 16.3 million viewers between 11:30 and 11:45 a.m. (ET).

Going into Saturday, the U.S. team’s games averaged 11.7 million viewers, making it the most-watched World Cup group stage ever in the U.S. on English-language television. Viewing was up 10% from 2014, the last time the U.S. competed in the World Cup.

Nevertheless, Fox Sports executive VP and head of strategy and analytics Mike Mulvihill — in an interview on the eve of the game — told Multichannel News he believes World Cup ratings will continue to spike despite the U.S. loss for live coverage on Fox and FS1, as well as on the Fox Sports app and for replays on Fox-owned streaming service Tubi. Here’s an edited transcript of that conversation. 

Mike Mulvihill

Mike Mulvihill (Image credit: Fox Sports)

MCN: Have you been surprised thus far by the Fox Sports’ ratings performance for the World Cup, given the crowded market and the fall start of the tournament?

Mike Mulvihill: Honestly, no. I don't think we are surprised. I think we had a lot of confidence that this was going to transfer to the fall just fine. It is a more crowded time of year as far as marque sports events, but it's also Fox’s best time of year, so our ability to promote the World Cup, is so much stronger in the fall than it would be in the summer. And we’ve really pushed it as hard as we’ve ever pushed anything through our NFL and in college football games. It's a higher TV usage during this time of year and it’s the most powerful time of the year for our brand, and I think we’ve been able to capitalize on those promotional platforms. Our expectation was that we would see pretty substantial growth. 

MCN: How dependent are the ratings on the U.S. continuing to advance in the World Cup? If they lose, are you fearful that the audience may dissipate a bit?

MM: No, I'm actually not fearful of that at all. This is a 64-match tournament, so each match, no matter how big it might be, only represents something like one and a half percent of the total tournament. So if the U.S. is eliminated this weekend, I don't think it's gonna have any negative impact on our story going forward. I still think we're gonna finish up plus 20% to 30% for the entire tournament. It would be amazing to see the U.S. advance, not even so much because of the growth story, but just because of what it would mean for continued growth of soccer in the US and continued growth and interest in the national team. But we don't need them to go any further than this to have a really successful tournament. 

MCN: How has having all of the English-language World Cup games airing on linear television bolstered audience viewership?

MM: We're obviously believers in traditional broadcast TV — our biggest events are always on the broadcast platform. We still think that there’s a lot to be said for the reach, ease and familiarity of traditional broadcast TV. Because of the football conflicts we actually have fewer matches on [the Fox broadcast network] this year than we had four years ago, but we have a lot more than had ever been on broadcast prior to our company getting the rights. And so we do believe that just using your biggest stage aggressively is a pretty positive contributor. 

MCN: Having said that, Fox Sports has thus far experienced strong numbers on the digital side. How are you using the digital platform to your advantage? 

MM: Not only are we breaking records on the digital side, we’re breaking them by margins that you just never see. We’re having increases of several orders of magnitude in our social interactions and our video views. Our live match streaming is the highest it’s ever been. We’re obviously really proud of the linear story and that’s where the bulk of the viewership is and where the bulk of the revenue is. But the growth trajectory on the digital side is just extraordinary. You never see percentages like 600% to 700% increases, but we’re actually seeing them right now. ■

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.