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World Cup Strains to Reverse Sports-Viewing Trends

Analysis: Even soccer's biggest event has a hard time kicking back digital migration

Executives at 21st Century Fox and NBCUniversal are hoping they can shout as loud about World Cup goals as many of the athletes on the field. The soccer teams may have the easier task.

Sports broadcasts were once the last thing standing in the TV industry, the only broadcasts that proved able to stand against the ongoing migration of viewers from linear day-and-date TV shows to video-streaming on demand. In the last few years, however, even sports have proven vulnerable.

In April, viewership of the NCAA men’s basketball championship telecast across TBS, TNT and truTV fell about 28% when compared to 2017’s broadcast on CBS. Without taking streaming into account, linear viewership of NBC’s primetime Winter Olympics coverage fell 16% when compared to the network’s 2014 telecast of the same event. Live-plus-same-day Super Bowl viewership this year fell about 7%, according to Nielsen, capping off an NFL season in which the audience for regular-season games was off by 10%.

The World Cup offers U.S. viewers a different kind of football, but will that be enough to prevail against seemingly insurmountable forces?

There was a severe plunge in overall linear-TV audience early in the proceedings. Consider that 48 game telecasts across Fox and Fox Sports 1 won an average of 2,069,000 viewers, according to Nielsen – a tumble of 42% compared to an average of 3.54 million viewers on World Cup games broadcast across ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 in 2014 and down 15% compared to the approximately 2.43 million who watched games across those networks in 2010. NBCU’s Telemundo has seen similar trends. More recently, some games have broken out in a bigger way.

Both companies still benefit from having rights to the sort of property that continues to draw a passionate crowd on a sustained basis. Fox and Telemundo in 2011 won rights to U.S. broadcasts of the soccer tournament, reportedly paying $400 million and $600 million, respectively, for the ability to distribute the games in 2018 and 2022, as well as the women’s counterpart in 2015 and 2019. The total figure – $1 billion – is believed to be more than double what ESPN ($425 million) and Univision ($325 million) paid for rights to the 2010 and 2014 showcases. Telemundo announced in June that it had met a goal of selling $225 million in advertising for its World Cup broadcasts and raised its ad-sales target to $250 million. Fox has also indicated its ad inventory around the games was largely sold out.

Audiences for some of the recent games have been significant, particularly when digital viewing is captured. Telemundo, for example, wooed an average of 5.2 million viewers to last Wednesday’s game between Mexico and Sweden via Telemundo, NBC Sports apps and other extensions. Airing the World Cup games helped Telemundo win more viewers between 18 and 49 on average than Univision for the week ended June 24, according to Nielsen. Croatia’s win over Denmark Sunday  won 6.16 million viewers via Fox broadcast and streaming services,  and Russia’s win over Spain  on the same day drew nearly 5.38 million via the same sources.

Both companies have been hindered by conditions beyond their control. Russia’s hosting of the World Cup means the games can air in early morning, rather than in primetime. The American team failed to quality, leaving U.S. audiences without a home team for which to root. And both companies are World Cup newcomers, which means audiences haven’t considered them a natural place to turn to watch the extravaganza.

TV executives will say isolating linear-TV viewership of sports events is unfair, given their growing digital audience. But it’s the TV viewing that generates the biggest audience in any moment and the venue that commands the highest rates from advertisers. NBCU earlier this year revealed that it guaranteed advertisers a “total” viewership across broadcast, cable and digital.  Bloomberg reported in June that Fox had reduced its World Cup ratings guarantees to advertisers.

Whether any of that will cut into the profitability of the events for either media company remains locked in corporate ledgers. “The metrics that matter are how you are performing vs what you sold,” noted Bruce Lefkowitz, executive vice president of ad sales for Fox Networks Group in a June 22 post on Twitter. “Past performance is pretty much irrelevant.”

 

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