Soccer vs Soccer: Can the World Cup win a US TV fight with the NFL? | World Cup 2022

At a World Economic Forum dinner in Davos in 2020, Fifa President Gianni Infantino gushed as he gushed about the generational impact the United States would have on football.

“The United States is on the verge of becoming the soccer powerhouse of the world, it’s coming faster than you think,” Infantino enthused while discussing the USA hosting the 2026 World Cup with Mexico and Canada. “The ‘American Dream’ is something we all need to have, everyone who loves football. The 4 billion people around the world, we all have to dream this dream.”

Now that FIFA’s one-of-a-kind Winter World Cup is here in Qatar, it should test US TV viewers’ appetites for the world’s most popular sport. And for the first time, the World Series is vying for those TV views with the NFL and a crowded US sports market.

Will NFL fans choose to switch Thursday from the Thanksgiving Day classics or their team’s late-season playoffs to see two of football’s biggest stars, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar? Can a classic group game between heavyweights Spain and Germany on Sunday take eyes off the NFL playlist?

Experts are skeptical.

“If we’ve learned anything lately, whether it’s the pandemic to anthem knees, Black Lives Matter protests, or even literally a star-to-be lying on the pitch with a concussion and motionless, it’s that nothing and I mean, nothing stops the NFL. ” says Dr. Adam Beissel, an assistant professor at Miami University of Ohio who studies the political economy of sports mega-events. Beissel was referring to the troubling concussion injury suffered in a recent game by Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.

“Soccer in America has always been the sport of the future. When will it become the norm? I think that’s the million dollar question.”

Fifa’s decision to move the World Cup back to November and December from its usual June-July schedule means that during these quieter summer months, the tournament will move from little competition for casual fans to a competition in a crowded American sports schedule where the NFL and, to a lesser extent, college football, the NBA and NHL have become direct competitors.

The NFL isn’t just a competitor, it dominates US television, period. The league recently released TV viewership figures for 2021, showing it accounts for 48 of the top 50 television programs, while the average NFL show draws 17.1 million viewers. Those numbers make it by far the leading form of entertainment on US television screens. In this World Cup, Fifa has four games that will face the NFL – notably two of which partially clash with the Bills-Lions game on Thanksgiving when (American) football is playing in the background tradition.

“I don’t know that [TV ratings] will fail utterly, but the NFL is a totally unique asset when it comes to being a US ratings juggernaut,” said Charles R. Taylor, sports marketing professor at Villanova University. “There’s nothing harder in the US than going up against the NFL and given the number of football fans there, I think that’s just an uphill battle.”

A recent survey found that one in three US adults identify themselves as football fans, but only 7% consider themselves avid fans. The NFL, meanwhile, counts on one in three of its fans being avid followers and 35% being casual fans. In comparison, football has 7% avid fans and 25% casual fans, leaving it only ahead of golf and tennis, while it lags behind MLB (20% avid – 35% casual fans), the NBA (16-30), the NHL (10- 28) and college football (18-34) and basketball (12-31) in popularity.

That makes it hard to imagine fans of the New York Jets walking away from their team’s first playoff push in 12 years to watch the magic of Pedri in the Spain-Germany game on November 27, or fans of the Philadelphia Eagles, one of the Favorites for this season’s Super Bowl and opted to watch a potential knockout round game with the USA on December 4th.

“Advertisers have an expected rating from Fox in mind, and they will not be happy if ratings fall short of Fox’s expectations,” Taylor says. “I think expectations are a bit dampened by this move to this time of year.”

Fox Sports and Telemundo both say the United States has qualified for the tournament. TV ratings for the 2018 World Cup in Russia fell significantly compared to four years earlier in Brazil, with an average of 5.04 million Americans watching on Fox and Telemundo in 2018 compared to 8.06 million watching four years earlier ESPN and Univision were watching. The United States’ failure to qualify for 2018 is likely to have played a major role in the slump.

Younger Americans are also expected to fuel Qatar’s ratings, with the Latino population driving much of the interest. A recent Telemundo poll found that nearly three-quarters of US Latinos identify themselves as football fans and 67% plan to watch the World Cup on TV or another device. The multitude of platforms for watching games can also make it difficult to ascertain the true numbers, experts have warned.

Fifa has favored American viewers by ensuring there is no US game against the NFL in the group stage, with favorable weekday kick-offs at 2 p.m. EST for each of the team’s Group B games, including on Black Friday , when they play against England . Pundits expect the Black Friday and Thanksgiving games, when Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal and Neymar’s Brazil spring into action against the hyped Buffalo Bills and lowly Detroit Lions, will be the best barometer of US interest.

“There are more Premier League fans in the US than in England, so the stars playing for England will certainly be a draw,” says Beissel. “It’s going to be the biggest game, probably the highest-rated game in the group stage, and it’s conveniently scheduled right on Black Friday when theoretically most Americans are out of work.”

US Soccer recognizes this benefit, and Chief Commercial Officer David Wright called the Black Friday window an “incredible promotional window” to engage a wide audience and “foster a larger fandom.”

The notion that Fifa is pulling out all the stops for the US in their never-ending quest for footballing riches is reinforced when one looks at the TV backlog of the 2026 tournament.

In 2015, Fifa rewarded Fox, Telemundo and Bell Media (Canada) with a third cycle of World Cup events in a no-bid deal to avoid lawsuits over their decision to postpone the World Cup in Qatar from the sweltering summer heat postpone winter start. Fox reportedly paid a 10% increase of $467 million for its current 2026 broadcast rights deal, earning 24 additional games at a discounted price as the expanded North American edition expands from 32 to 48 teams and 58 to 80 games increases.

“This tournament will garner incredible ratings across the North American continent and yet it was awarded in return for Fox and Telemundo who felt Qatar had lowered ratings for not being in an optimal spot for the sport’s calendar ‘ says Beisel. “If it had put out a bid, it would have broken records for broadcast rights, and giant tech companies like Apple and Amazon would likely have jumped into the fray.”

The other X-factor for Fox and Telemundo will be a strong run by the US men’s team in a group that also includes Iran and Wales. Their chances remain after Monday’s opening draw against Wales. Should the men’s national team take off, it could emulate the success of the US women’s team by capturing the imagination of American television audiences.

“[Americans viewers] are still patriots and they’re still largely homers and they’re not at the point in their fandom where they watch football for the love of the game. They watch football for the love of the US national team and how they are doing,” says Vijay Setlur, associate professor of sports marketing at the Schulich School of Business. Setlur expects Qatar’s numbers to signal whether Winter World Cup bids could be attractive in the future as Saudi Arabia is set to host a bid for the 2030 edition alongside Greece and Egypt.

Fifa, which has followed the US market since the 1994 World Cup, is also aware of the international threat posed by the NFL, including the success of a recent game in Germany. The NFL aims to grow its international business to $1 billion annually and is exploring initiatives like flag football at the Olympics to expand that global appeal.

Fox has heavily promoted the World Cup during its NFL broadcasts – and it’s worth remembering that the vast majority of games in Qatar will not clash with the NFL. Fox also ran a commercial starring Hollywood heavyweights Jon Hamm and Mariah Carey, as well as the NFL’s Tom Brady, in hopes that this cross-promotion will boost TV numbers.

“Statistically, viewership is always higher in the fall and winter,” Fox Executive Producer David Neal said recently. “We don’t have to compete to bring in people from the beach or the golf course. Viewers are already used to watching a lot of TV at this time of year.”

Still, NFL fans need to be persuaded to tune out their team just as the playoff stretch drive begins and audiences are growing, with nearly 30 million viewers watching a recent Sunday game.

“I live in the Philadelphia area and I don’t see the average Eagles fan tuning into the game to see a game like Germany vs Spain,” says Taylor. “I’m a good example for my generation that watches a World Cup, but they’ll never make me a big football fan because I just think there’s more action in the other sports.”

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