(Bloomberg) -- Starting this week, Aly Wagner will be the first woman to call a men’s World Cup match on U.S. television. But she’ll be doing so from thousands of miles away.
Eight of the 12 broadcasters calling games for Fox will be in a studio on the company’s lot in Los Angeles, no closer to the action than viewers on their couches at home. It’s the first time a U.S. TV network has declined to send its full announcing team to the host country in more than decade, an unusual move considering how committed Fox is to soccer.
“It’s indicative of the fact that you’re missing the straw that stirs the drink -- the U.S. team,” said Lee Berke, a sports media consultant. “It’s the one team that can truly drive ratings.”
Fox paid more than $400 million for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup rights several years ago and grabbed the 2026 games in February 2015. But the network’s maiden World Cup broadcast starting in Russia next week is confronting several challenges -- chiefly the absence of the U.S. men’s team -- that have forced management to look at costs and take steps to ensure its coverage isn’t a financial failure.
Fox is pushing back against the idea that it is cutting costs, while acknowledging the financial realities.
“Russia is the size of the U.S., and we have 64 matches across the entirety of the country,” Brian Sullivan, president of Fox’s TV network group, said in an interview. “Moving people and production resources around a country that large in that short a time frame would have been an unbelievable undertaking.”
Viewership of the monthlong event that begins June 14 is expected to drop from four years ago because the games will be broadcast while many Americans are asleep. Fox will air all 64 games live, including 38 on its flagship broadcast network.
The absence of the U.S. team has forced Fox to lower the audience it guaranteed advertisers by as much as 20 percent, according to an ad buyer with knowledge of the matter. Fox also cut its projections for advertising sales by about $20 million, Bloomberg reported in October.
Fox had already sold about 75 percent of its World Cup advertising before the U.S. men’s team faltered last year. So the company offered advertisers free air time in late-round matches or during other programming to account for the expected slip in viewership, said the buyer, who asked not to be identified because the terms aren’t public.
Sullivan said the ad inventory is almost sold out, though the network is holding onto spots during the later rounds in case ratings are better or worse than expected.
Fox’s prices are higher than in the previous World Cup in 2014, when Walt Disney Co. aired the tournament on ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC, according to another buyer, who also asked not to be identified.
And Fox says any gloominess in the outlook when the U.S. was eliminated has been mitigated by strong demand.
“Everyone’s initial reaction was the loss of the U.S. would have a negative impact,” Sullivan said. “But what’s happened around the World Cup is the advertisers tend to be big, global brands -- that’s what we’ve seen. They want to be there when there is a big global event. That kept their appetite strong.”
Overall, the U.S. team’s no-show should depress domestic ad sales across TV and the internet by as much as $100 million, according to the ad-buying firm Zenith. TV networks can charge a premium when the U.S. team plays, which also helps attract fans to other games, highlight shows and online outlets.
Fox has scrapped plans to program related soccer content on Fox Deportes, its Spanish-language channel. Telemundo holds the rights to broadcast the games in Spanish, and Fox had originally planned to offer ancillary programming, one of the ad buyers said.
Fox rose 0.8 percent to $40.31 in New York trading on Monday. The stock was up 16 percent this year through the end of last week.
Fox surprised the soccer world in 2011 by outbidding ESPN for TV rights to the World Cup. ESPN aired the popular sporting event between 1994 and 2014 and vied to keep the games for 2018 and 2022.
But Fox bid more, confident in the rising popularity of soccer in the U.S., where football is the most popular sport. The six most-watched World Cup matches in the U.S. have all happened within the past decade. Four of those included the home team.
Network executives have since embraced Mexico as America’s second team. They also argue that many soccer fans, especially young ones, are more attached to stars from other countries than their own national team.
Broadcasts of foreign leagues and social media have enabled fans to track players all over the world. The best-selling jerseys in the U.S. belong to Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo and Argentine Lionel Messi, not Clint Dempsey.
“National teams are less important than they used to be,” said Simon Kuper, co-author of Soccernomics. “The U.S. is a country where there’s always been lots of viewing of other national teams due to immigrants and a large hustler culture. You’re also seeing millennials detaching more and more from their national team. They’ve been raised with global soccer.”
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