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06.30.14

Rupert Murdoch Bets a Half-Billion Dollars That the Next World Cup Will Be Even Bigger in America

Fox Sports outbid ESPN and NBC for the rights to the next World Cup, counting on even greater soccermania four years from now.

No matter what happens on Tuesday in the World Cup game between the United States and Belgium, soccer is not going to be going away anytime soon on American television. Since the 1994 World Cup in the United States and America’s victory in the 1999 women’s championship final, soccer viewership has been ascending.

Rupert Murdoch knows this very well. While one of his Fox News Channel personalities, Ann Coulter, thinks that the growing interest in soccer “can only be a sign of the nation’s moral decay,” her boss is wagering a half a billion dollars that soccer will be even bigger four years from now when the 2018 World Cup takes place in Russia.

In October 2011, Murdoch’s Fox outbid Disney’s ESPN and Comcast’s NBC for the U.S. English-speaking rights to the one long tournament with a $425 million guarantee for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. (NBCUniversal Telemundo Spanish networks paid $600 million for American Spanish TV rights.) Fox will begin to show FIFA soccer matches next year as Murdoch’s sports group owns the rights to all FIFA events from 2015 to 2022, including the men’s World Cup in ’18 and ’22; the women’s World Cup in ’15 and ’19; and all Under-20 and Under-17 matches.

Fox Sports isn’t saying much about the 2018 World Cup, preferring not to get in the way of this year’s presentation on ESPN, ABC, and Univision. But Lou D’Ermilio of Fox Sports said, “Fox has been a major player in televising soccer in the U.S. for some time. Until it was assimilated into Fox Sports 1 last summer, Fox Soccer was the only soccer-dedicated channel in the country.”

This year’s World Cup has been a smash for ESPN and Univision. The June 22 match between the U.S. and Portugal had more than 26 million viewers across a variety of platforms, including 18.2 million watching on ESPN, another 6.5 million on Univision, and about 1.3 million that watched the match online. Some 14 million people watched the U.S.-Germany match last Thursday afternoon.

A confluence of factors in 2014 including the brevity of a match and changing demographics has giving soccer a new audience in America. A contest is divided into two 45-minute periods with a 15-minute halftime, and there are no commercials to interrupt the action. The whole package is done within two hours, great for people with short attention spans. Plus, the children of the ’90s “Soccer Moms” have grown into fans who represent big bucks for television.

“Soccer is a must for any sports portfolio, and that is why ESPN, FOX Sports 1 and NBC Sports Network have all invested so much in the game,” said media consultant Jim Williams, who has negotiated deals between sports entities and cable TV networks. 

“ESPN spent their money on the MLS and future World Cups. Meanwhile, the upstart Fox Sports went after the European leagues and the UEFA Champions League the top teams in the world.”

Soccer gets people in front of the TV and that's the name of the game for television people like Murdoch, Disney’s Robert Iger, and Comcast’s Brian Roberts. Sure, there is a cost to buy the programming, but it appears that all through cable and satellite TV subscriber fees and advertising partners, they can get the investment back.

All the networks executives who have invested in soccer are buoyed recent Nielsen ratings in the 6 to 17 year old category.

The children of the ’90s “Soccer Moms” have grown into fans who represent big bucks for television.

“Going inside the numbers, boys and girls age 6-17 made up 4.6% of the 2013 World Series audience on Fox,” said Williams. “For the ABC coverage of the 2014 NBA finals it was 9.4%, and for the 2014 NHL Stanley Cup Finals 9%. The winner in the category though was the 2013 English Premier League soccer on NBC with 11%. The [regular season] English Premier League on NBC and UEFA Champions League on FOX matches regularly out-rate MLB broadcasts and they are nipping at the heels of the regular season games aired by the NHL and NBA.”

Murdoch also may be in the running for other prized soccer packages which come up for bid in the near future. It is thought FOX, ESPN, and NBC, along with beIN Sports, will bid for the UEAF Championship League television package, which ESPN owns until 2016.

The World Cup is a huge event globally in which Americans have interest. Because of that Rupert Murdoch and his partners have a major interest in presenting the sport to America. If his calculations are right, he stands to make a lot of money on the event and establish his FOX 1 Sports Channel as a competitor for bragging rights in the battle with ESPN for sports on TV superiority.