Fox Sports is smiling bravely, but no amount of spin by the network can hide the damage caused by the U.S. men’s soccer team's dramatic crash and burn out of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Fox is poised to lose an estimated $10 million to $20 million because of the U.S. team's failure to reach the tournament final in Russia. The network shelled out $400 million to beat ESPN for the English-language rights to four World Cups from 2015-22, including the men's World Cups in 2018 and 2022. USA's absence is expected to hurt U.S. TV ratings, particularly early in the tournament.
Some U.S. advertisers who have previously bought airtime will probably stay on the sideline now that the tournament likely will generate less TV/radio/online coverage than anticipated.
Financial analyst Brian Wieser of Pivotal Research Group estimates a negative impact for Fox in the "low tens" of millions.
"Reports indicating a $10 million to $20 million negative impact for Fox from the U.S. team’s failure to qualify seem correct and represent a negligible amount for the network," he wrote in a research report while analyzing the impact on parent company 21st Century Fox.
Wieser, in fact, believes the seven-hour time difference between Russia and the U.S. Eastern Time Zone will be more of a problem for Fox than the absence of the U.S. team. ESPN had to deal with time differences of one to two hours while broadcasting the 2014 World Cup from Brazil.
“Arguably the challenging time zone (with the 2018 tournament hosted in Russia) will prove to cause a more significant factor depressing viewing when comparing 2018 vs. 2014," Wieser added.
Meanwhile, advertising industry bible Adweek warned Fox will likely suffer "a big ratings hit" without the U.S. squad playing. "More than a dozen" advertisers had agreed to buy time on Fox's broadcasts before the U.S. team's failure, Adweek's Jason Lynch wrote, and the network was deep in talks "with FIFA partners like Adidas and Coca-Cola."
Soccer TV analysts were stunned by the USMNT's ignominious exit.
Fox's Alexi Lalas, a former national team player, felt shame.
"This team, they failed themselves, they failed the sport and they failed their country," he told Colin Cowherd on FS1.
Who can forget ESPN soccer analyst Taylor Twellman's angry rant following the team's 2-1 loss to Trindidad and Tobago on the final night of CONCACAF qualifying?
"This is an utter embarrassment," the former USMNT member declared as he practically came out of his chair on the set.
Fox, in keeping its chin up publicly, issued a statement saying the United States' loss did not change its "passion" for the world's biggest sporting event. The statement was a preview of how the network plans to generate enthusiasm in the States for a U.S.-less World Cup.
"While the U.S. was eliminated, the biggest stars in the world from Lionel Messi to Cristiano Ronaldo stamped their tickets to Russia on the same day, and will battle teams ranging from Mexico to England that have massive fan bases in America," the statement read. "The World Cup is the greatest sporting event on earth that changes the world for one month every four years, and FOX Sports remains steadfast in our commitment of bringing the games to America for the first time in 2018 and will continue to support the U.S. Soccer Federation as they look ahead to the 2022 World Cup."
The network has to hope that the country's growing Latino population, and the continued growth of soccer in the U.S., will be enough to put it over the top next summer.
Fox is planning 350 hours of World Cup coverage, with its main TV set located in Moscow's Red Square. During a launch event in New York last month, now-former team manager Bruce Arena guaranteed the U.S. would qualify.
“I will tell you this: We’re going to be there, and I’m going to miss all this great Fox coverage,” Arena said, per Sports Illustrated .
Now Arena will have plenty of time to watch that TV coverage.