Through the first round of games in the 2018 FIFA World Cup, TV viewership from the U.S. has dropped about 44% compared with the last tournament in 2014, according to data from Nielsen.
The drop is consistent across English-language broadcasts on Fox and the Spanish-language broadcasts on NBCUniversal's Telemundo (owned by ). Games on Fox have averaged 1.98 million viewers, compared with 3.55 million on ESPN in 2014. Telemundo's games have drawn an average audience of 1.87 million viewers, down from 3.3 million on Univision four years ago.
Together, the two networks paid more than $1 billion for the U.S. rights to the tournament in Russia and the 2022 event in Qatar, and now they both face the same headwinds. The U.S. team, historically the strongest draw for domestic viewers, failed to qualify for the 2018 tournament. Time zones also mean games start as early as 6 a.m. on the East Coast, earlier than the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Both networks are newcomers to World Cup broadcasts.
The tournament is also probably experiencing the effects of rapidly changing viewership habits, according to sports media consultant Chris Bevilacqua. There's a steady stream of people surrendering their cable subscriptions in exchange for digital offerings, a trend that's affecting nearly everyone in television.
"It's a combination of all these things that leads you to this drop," Bevilacqua said. "These numbers aren't necessarily a shock. This is probably along the lines of what the networks thought was going to happen once the U.S. failed to qualify."
For Fox , that's true across at-home television viewership and digital consumption, according to Michael Mulvihill, Fox Sports's executive vice president of research, league operations and strategy. That said, Mulvihill said Fox has been pleased by the audiences watching in bars and other public places — the reporting of those numbers are generally delayed — and the ratings on its cable network, FS1.
Last weekend's Germany-Mexico and Brazil-Switzerland matches were the two most-watched soccer games in FS1 history. World Cup content, coupled with coverage of golf's U.S. Open also meant FS1 reached more unique viewers than ESPN's main channel last week.
"That's the first time we've had the greatest reach of any sports network for an entire week," Mulvihill said. "That's terrific. That's been a bit stronger than we expected."
Earlier in the tournament, the company said that early-stage viewership was up 32%, compared with the average over the past four tournaments and excluding games played by the U.S.
Telemundo also pointed to specific parts of its coverage that have pleased executives. The Mexico-Germany game, for example, was El Tri's most-watched group-stage game in any language since 1994.
“We are starting to see the benefits of this increased viewership on the rest of our dayparts, ranking Telemundo as the most-watched Spanish language network in total day,” Lia Silkworth, senior vice president of research, said in a statement.
Fox lowered the audience it guaranteed advertisers as much as 20%, and Bloomberg reported in October that the network cut ad sales projections by about $20 million after the U.S. team failed to qualify. Mulvihill said the response from advertisers during the tournament has been positive. The company also sent just four of its 12 broadcasters to Russia, electing to have the other eight call their games from a studio in Los Angeles.
With no U.S. team to promote, Fox and Telemundo have focused their attention on the Mexican team in a battle for bilingual viewers. Fox's most-watched match through the first 16 games was Brazil versus Switzerland, which drew 4 million viewers Sunday afternoon on the East Coast. Four years ago, 9.7 million tuned in to watch the U.S. team's first match against Ghana on a Monday evening for ESPN.
Telemundo's peak audience was 6.6 million for Sunday morning's match between Mexico and Germany. In 2014, Univision's most-watched game through the first 16 matches was Brazil versus Croatia on a Thursday afternoon with 4.7 million viewers.
Since the 2014 World Cup, Nielsen has adjusted its methodology to account for streaming viewers, an attempt to better capture the entire audience as digital and mobile options become more popular.
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