The 2022 World Cup overcomes obstacles to take a ratings hit

Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates with the trophy in front of fans after winning the World Cup final soccer match between Argentina and France at Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, December 18, 2022. Argentina won 4-2 on a penalty kick shootout after the game ended with a 3–3 tie.  (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Argentina’s Lionel Messi celebrates with the trophy in front of fans after winning the World Cup final soccer match between Argentina and France in Lusail, Qatar, on Dec. 18. (Martin Meissner/Associated Press)

Argentina’s heart-stopping victory over France to win the 2022 World Cup on Sunday drew an average of nearly 26 million viewers, including a record-breaking English-speaking audience for Fox, which achieved better-than-expected ratings for the tournament.

The football match from Lusail, Qatar, featuring the sport’s two biggest global stars, Argentina’s Lionel Messi and France’s Kylian Mbappé, averaged 16.8 million viewers on Fox. Nielsen’s figure is 47% higher than the 2018 World Cup final between France and Croatia.

The total includes fans who have streamed the game on internet platforms. An additional 9 million viewers watched the Spanish-language broadcast on Telemundo and NBCUniversal’s streaming service Peacock, a 65% increase from 2018.

The strong performance is likely to boost an expected robust market when the World Cup governing body, FIFA, sells the TV rights for the 2030 tournament. ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro has already said the Walt Disney Co. unit will likely play a role for the event for its TV networks and streaming app ESPN+.

Tech players Apple and Amazon — which exclusively stream “NFL Thursday Night Football” — are also likely to bid as the companies become more aggressive in pursuing sports media rights.

“Messi and Mbappé have dominated sports coverage in recent days, and while one or both may not play in the 2030 World Cup, all this growing interest and improved ratings should lead to nearly doubling the rights to the World Cup in the US.” fees for 2030 and beyond,” said Lee Burke, president of LGBT Sports, Entertainment & Media.

The viewing figures for Sunday’s final were especially impressive as the game started in the morning in the US

Sports TV executives were nervous about scheduling the 2022 World Cup in late autumn due to dangerously hot weather in Qatar. Hosting the tournament in the Middle East for the first time left it uncharted territory for the two networks who reportedly paid a total of $1 billion for the broadcast rights to the 2018 and 2022 tournaments.

Mike Mulvihill, executive vice president and head of strategy and analysis for Fox Sports, acknowledged the concerns, but said he believes the network ultimately benefited from promoting the World Cup in its highly regarded NFL and college football games in the fall.

Another factor that increased the ratings was that the US team entered the round of 16. The team failed to qualify in 2014.

The US team’s matches – a draw against England and a loss to the Netherlands – probably brought American fans to the tournament who stuck around to see more. The average Fox audience for the post-elimination rounds in the US was about 7 million viewers, better than many regular college football games.

“The relief for us was that the USA had formally qualified for the tournament,” said Mulvihill. “That gave us confidence that it would be up significantly in 2018. In the end, the growth for the rounds after the U.S. knockout really exceeded what we expected.”

Overall, Fox averaged 3.5 million viewers over 64 matches, up from 2018’s 2.7 million viewers when the tournament was held in Russia. Audiences for NBCUniversal’s Telemundo, Universo, and Peacock averaged 2.58 million, up 14% from 2018.

Football is especially attractive as a venue for live TV because of its upscale audience. Mulvihill said the median household income for Fox’s World Cup audience is $115,000, well above that for other major team sports.

“The US is the only country in the world, at least among the English-speaking population, where football is the sport of the elite,” Mulvihill said.

Fox and Telemundo were awarded the rights to the 2026 World Cup, which will be held in North America – including games in Los Angeles and New York – at a modest increase over what it paid for 2022, partly in response to concerns that it this year’s event was scheduled off-season.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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