Bloomberg — The world’s biggest sporting event is about to go head-to-head with America’s most popular sport.
The FIFA World Cup, normally a summer TV event, kicked off Sunday in the middle of a busy college and pro football calendar, creating unique challenges for broadcasters trying to attract viewers.
Fox Corp. and Comcast Corp.’s Telemundo, which air the tournament in English and Spanish, will face a lot more competition for sports fans since FIFA moved the event to later in the year because of the extreme heat in the host nation, Qatar.
World Cup matches featuring high-profile teams like Argentina, Spain and Germany will take place at the same time as college and NFL games, forcing fans -- and sports bars -- to choose which to prioritize.
Times zones will create an additional challenge for broadcasters. Some World Cup matches will start as early as 5 a.m. on the East Coast, which is eight hours behind Qatar.
But this unusual World Cup also presents new opportunities. Unlike four years ago, the US team has qualified for the tournament, providing an audience boost. TV viewing is generally higher in the fall than summer because fewer people are on vacation. And retailers may be more likely to buy World Cup ads this year because it coincides with the holiday shopping season.
For Fox, Thanksgiving weekend is shaping up to be a “mini Super Bowl” for the network in terms of viewership, Fox Sports Chief Executive Officer Eric Shanks said recently at the CAA World Congress of Sports. A combined 120 million people are expected to watch the New York Giants play the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving, US-England in the World Cup on Black Friday, the University of Michigan versus Ohio State University in college football on Saturday, and Sunday’s NFL slate, he said.
Four years ago, the men’s World Cup averaged 5 million viewers across Fox and Telemundo, marking declines from the previous two tournaments.
Fox is charging higher rates for commercials aired during the World Cup than it did four years ago, according to a person familiar with the matter. Fox is selling 30-second World Cup ads for an average of about $300,000, the person said, and charging about $700,000 for commercials during the US-England match. Matches will be split between its broadcast channel and FS1 cable network, while its free streaming service, Tubi, will show replays.
The organizers behind the World Cup in Qatar have banned the sale of alcohol within the stadium grounds, though US viewers will still see beer ads during the broadcasts.
In 2018, the men’s World Cup generated $384 million in national TV advertising for Fox and Telemundo, according to the ad data firm Kantar. The two broadcasters agreed in 2011 to pay about $1 billion for the rights to televise the 2018 and 2022 World Cups in the US.
Bill Wanger, head of programming and scheduling at Fox Sports, said that “in a perfect world” he’d prefer to not have a big World Cup match, like France vs Denmark, airing at the same time as a popular college football game like Ohio State vs Michigan. But he said he did not think it would hurt Fox’s overall World Cup viewership.
“There will be a lot of channel flipping,” he said. “I think our ratings will be just fine, particularly with the US qualifying this time around.”
Fox let FIFA know about potential conflicts and “felt pretty comfortable” that the US team’s matches were not going to overlap with big NFL or college football games, according to Wagner. The team’s group-stage matches avoid the weekends.
Telemundo President Ray Warren said the Spanish-language audience for American football was relatively small so it was unlikely to affect the network’s World Cup ratings. He predicted that Telemundo’s audience for Mexico’s match against Argentina on Nov. 26 will set records, despite conflicting with Ohio State vs Michigan.
“We’re going to have numbers like we’ve never seen before,” he said. “It will be the biggest audience Telemundo has ever seen for a World Cup.”
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