The US Men’s National Team failing to qualify for the World Cup is a shocking disaster.
Given the rise of importance of soccer in this country, the relevance of the World Cup, the embarrassment of losing on the road to lowly Trinidad & Tobago when only a draw was needed, and everything that’s been poured into US Soccer over the last 20 years, it’s not a stretch to say it’s one of the worst results in the history of seeing the United States in international competition.
The entire American soccer pyramid has to hit the reset button. There’s no other choice. It will now be 2022 before we could possibly see the USA back in the World Cup. It’s going to be a long four years.
For the sports media side, seeing the USA miss out on Russia 2018 is also a disaster for Fox Sports, who will be broadcasting the tournament for the first time.
Just what is the impact for Fox Sports? Well, take this from President Eric Shanks, who joked that seeing the Americans not qualify for the World Cup would be like “$200 million flushed down the toilet.” That $200 million figure is relevant because it’s the rights fee that Fox paid for the 2018 World Cup in addition to another $200 million for 2022’s event.
A Focus on El Tri
With the Americans out of the tournament, expect Fox to go all-in with a Mexico side that will now become as close as they can get to the home team. We all know about the passion for the team throughout North America and now it’ll be up to Fox to get disenchanted USMNT fans to embrace their CONCACAF rival’s journey in Russia. If SEC fans can root for one another in bowl games in the name of conference superiority, maybe it’s possible? Team CONCACAF anyone?
Mexico will go from Plan B to Plan A for Fox. Expect their matches to get the most studio coverage, the top announcing teams, and all the prime exclusives Fox can get. It’s not a coincidence that Mexico’s coach, Juan Carlos Osorio, was present for Fox’s big presentation about their coverage plans in New York. If El Tri can make a deep run in the tournament it will at least soothe some of the pain of the USMNT’s stunning failure to qualify.
Embracing the Underdogs
With Iceland qualifying for the World Cup (a country who as Taylor Twellman pointed out has a similar population to Corpus Christi, Texas) there is a true underdog story that can be embraced. Iceland already has some relevance given their fantastic Euro 2016 run and a victory over England. Without the USMNT team in the field Americans will need somebody (anybody) to root for and this is an easy story to tell. Additionally, Fox could also embrace the other CONCACAF teams from Central America who made it as underdogs as well. Costa Rica made the quarterfinals four years ago as a feel-good story and perhaps they can duplicate that success or Honduras or Panama could make a surprise run in the tournament.
A Boost for the Bundesliga
One other team that you can expect Fox to give heavy coverage to is Germany. First, the Germans are the defending World Cup champions and always, always, always perform well in major tournaments so you know they’ll make a deep run. Second, Fox owns the rights to the Bundesliga, where most of the German side ply their trade. The Bundesliga hasn’t quite taken off on Fox Sports ratings-wise thanks to such a crowded landscape, but the more Fox can help build up their major European league, the better off they will be in the long run.
Whatever it’s going to be, Fox is going to have to work hard to find storylines to keep fans’ interest throughout the tournament. Let’s be real – this USMNT would have been very fortunate to make it out of the group stage once again given their struggles throughout qualifying. In reality, we’re only talking about three or four games out of the entire tournament that are directly related to the USMNT’s demise.
However, their failure to qualify does remove much of the early buzz and hype for the tournament and is a killer for casual fans. The USMNT’s involvement naturally lifts the entire competition into the mainstream, not just in sports but in pop culture too. Now without that boost, Fox is going to have to work overtime to try to build interest in the tournament. With the timezone difference to Russia and games taking place in the morning and afternoon hours, that could prove to be a bigger challenge.
Make no mistake about it, this is a significant punch to the gut for Fox as they build towards their first men’s World Cup. Especially with everything Fox has done to “Americanize” their coverage of the World Cup, it’s going to be slightly awkward when there’s no American team present. And it’s not out of the question to think that there are going to be people out there who will now not watch any World Cup games solely because the USMNT didn’t make it.
Ratings might naturally decline from Brazil 2014 because of the timezones and now that will be accentuated because of the USMNT’s absence. Hardcore soccer fans or people who watch MLS or the Premier League every week will tune in, but the red, white, and blue always brings in more fans. Just take a look at the massive ratings the USWNT brought in two years ago for Fox with over 25 million viewers.
It’s going to be a big challenge for Fox this summer in Russia. The world’s biggest tournament should offer no shortage of compelling storylines, Fox just has to figure out how to get the casual American fan on board without the Americans present.