Let’s consider this a preemptive strike against the millions of sports fans who are undoubtedly about to complain that not only is soccer, but women’s soccer, taking up valuable TV time on Fox and its family of cable networks this month that could be better served showing Nascar qualifications and Mike Francesa simulcasts. The FIFA Women’s World Cup is big business for television partners, and those of you looking for PokerStars re-runs and UFC talking head shows are just going to have to wait.
Fox is all in on the Women’s World Cup in Canada, not only brining their regular footy crew out of the swanky California studio to a lavish new outdoor set in Vancouver, but hiring a slew of former players, coaches and pundits to round out their coverage of this summer’s marquee tournament.
Just…don’t expect their coverage to break television records. Or even come close.
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) May 20, 2015
Look the first weekend of the tournament, for example. Fox should expect some boost from the Champions League final on the main network to use as promotion for the opening World Cup match between Canada and China, airing at 6 p.m. ET on Saturday, June 6 on FS1. The game that follows against New Zealand and Netherlands will be at 9 p.m. ET on FS2, and Fox will be lucky if that audience cracks six figures.
Frankly, the network is doing its best to take the Women’s World Cup seriously, putting 16 of the 52 matches on Fox, with the bulk of the tournament on FS1 and just a few matches on FS2, per Richard Deitsch of SI.
And even though Fox is making a lot of games as accessible as possible, let’s not all jump on the network when few people tun in. Sunday, June 7 will feature two games on Fox and it’s impossible to think Norway and Thailand at 1 p.m. ET will capture America’s attention, but there it is on the schedule in all its mothership glory. Fox is trying, let’s give them that.
David Neal, Fox Sports executive producer: "The broadcast network is still an extremely powerful platform and it can be a difference-maker"
— Jonathan Tannenwald (@thegoalkeeper) June 4, 2015
Monday’s opener for the United States is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on FS1, a move that says more about Fox’s concern for its own cable network than the market for American women’s soccer (read: American). That match should break records for FS1, which is exactly why they aren’t wasting the moment on Fox. (The next two group-stage games for the USWNT are on Fox.)
The interest in the United States matches may not rival that of the men’s tournament last summer, but there is palpable excitement for the USWNT’s run through group play and deep into the knockout stages. And yet, while ESPN and ABC benefited from a USMNT boost that helped increase ratings for all the other non-American matches that took place in Brazil last summer, it’s hard to think the same will be said for the women’s team.
Even the notion of televising Cameroon and Ecuador on FS2, for example, ostensibly at the same time as the United States plays Australia, shows how seriously Fox is taking this tournament. Throwing that game on FoxSoccer Plus—rebranded as Women’s World Cup Channel through July 5— while counter-programming the tournament on FS2 with UFC, Nascar or, hell, even a colorful test pattern would make more sense for Fox than showing Cameroon and Ecuador! But they’ve certainly committed to the bit, so to speak, and good for them for doing it.
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 3, 2015
Fox knows what ESPN knew before it: the amount of work it takes to broadcast a Women’s World Cup will never match the return. If anything, this is a nice test run for Fox to see what works and what doesn’t in time for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
It’s almost as if any ratings outside all three U.S. group stage matches, as well as the late stages of the knockout rounds, should be considered a bonus for Fox. Even ESPN, with all it’s build up and years of World Cup infrastructure failed to get notable ratings in 2011 for the Women’s World Cup.
The 2011 Women’s World Cup finale did huge numbers at the time for ESPN, earning nearly 13.5 million viewers on ESPN, the highest rated soccer telecast on an ESPN network to that point. The non U.S. matches, however, didn’t fare so well. From SI in 2011:
The first 16 matches averaged a 0.4 rating, with a jump to between 0.9 and 1.2 for USWNT games. That’s double the average audience recorded by ESPN for the 2007 women’s World Cup, when the games aired from China in the middle of the night, so U.S. viewers aren’t bucking the trend for growth even though some obstacles (time difference, cable access) remain. But while other countries are hitting record figures, the U.S. has yet to get close to such levels.
That’s with all the ESPN promotional machinery that manages to make women’s softball popular, so Fox really doesn’t stand a chance this summer. Granted, those numbers should be qualified by the fact that Germany was the host nation in 2011, which put many start times at inconvenient hours in the United States. Still, the interest in America was then and is now centered on the success of the U.S. women’s team and very little else.
Let’s remember that when the ratings come out and people start chirping about the state of the game in America.
David Neal 2. "The real delineation between a successful broadcast for us and a 'hit' is the ability to attract casual viewers."
— Jonathan Tannenwald (@thegoalkeeper) June 4, 2015
Fox isn’t stopping at just covering the matches, so if you think you can sit through stoppage time to get your Nascar and UFC fix, think again.
In order to make the event have a big feel, Fox will have to spend hours and hours talking about just how big it is, and that’s precisely what the network is doing with pre-and post-event coverage from Vancouver.
Fox will have an hour-long pre-match show in advance of most match windows and will also host a late-night recap and conversation show much like ESPN had in 2014 in Brazil. Again from Deitsch at SI:
“I won’t lie: I really liked (ESPN’s late-night show from the 2014 World Cup) a lot,” said Fox Sports president Eric Shanks. “It definitely was the impetus for this show, which will be laid back and conversational in nature. It’s not people sitting at a desk presenting. This will have a Canadian ski lodge feel. Whoever is in town doing games that day will come by and be on and have a beverage or two.”
I guess something about Alexi Lalas makes people want to take off their ties and drink.
Fox seems as prepared as the network has ever been for an event of this scale, with more than two-dozen on-air personalities and countless behind-the-scenes staffers producing hours and hours of content for television and online. And yet, everything still seems a bit slapdash with Fox’s preparation in advance of the tournament’s opening.
Take, for example, the makeshift set they had to use during the FIFA announcements less than a week before the tournament is set to begin. Sure there’s something to be said about last minute touches, but the scene behind Rob Stone, Lalas, Wynalda and the Fox crew looked like it needed a lot of work to be ready.
— Leslie Osborne (@LeslieOsborne12) June 4, 2015
Were that ESPN, the facility probably would have had Bob Ley sleeping in a cot under the desk four weeks ago, but Stone was left deadpanning jokes about not being sure the on-air crew was even allowed in a construction zone at the time.
This, if nothing else, will be a great learning experience for Fox, and we’re going to see all the growing pains on live TV for nearly a month. Well, whoever is watching, at least.
In a release by Fox Sports back in April, Fox Executive Producer David Neal lauded his on-air team, saying, “[w]e have an extraordinary team of studio analysts who are knowledgeable, opinionated, and contemporary to the game. Our global roster features an exciting combination of television veterans and dynamic newcomers who all share one very important trait — an abiding passion for international soccer.”
Fox is something of a dynamic newcomer now as well, at least in terms of World Cup coverage. It’s a big event no matter how many people tune in, so Fox needs to act like the world is watching, even if most Americans will be tuned into something else.