On Wednesday morning, FIFA tweeted out the 2022 World Cup match schedule, complete with kickoff times. Even the most casual soccer fan is aware that the next edition of the World Cup will take place in Qatar, and will take place in the winter (well, late fall to be precise) instead of the summer.
? 2022 #WORLDCUP MATCH SCHEDULE ?
? It all starts in Qatar on Monday 21 November 2022 ?
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) July 15, 2020
In their release, FIFA further expanded on the schedule. Over the first 12 days of the tournament, there would be four group stage matches on each day. There would be no off days between the end of the group stage on the start of the Round of 16, which would feature two matches per day over four days. Following a pair of rest days, two quarterfinals would take place on two days before another two rest days, one semifinal on back to back days, two more off days, the third place game, and the final on December 18th.
And then….there are the start times. The group stage matches will start at 13:00, 16:00, 19:00, and 22:00 local time, while the Round of 16 and quarterfinals begin at 18:00 and 22:00 local. The semis start at 22:00, and both the third place game and final begin at 18:00. None of that seems too crazy, until you take the time change into account.
Qatar is eight hours ahead of the east coast of the United States, and 11 hours ahead of the west coast. Those 13:00 kickoffs will air at 5 AM in New York, and 2 AM in Los Angeles. The 16:00 kickoffs will air at 8 AM in Philadelphia, and 5 AM in Seattle. The 18:00 kickoffs will air at 10 AM in Miami and 7 AM in San Francisco, while the 19:00 kickoffs begin at 11 AM on the east coast and 8 AM on the west coast. Finally, we have the 22:00 kickoffs, which will start at 2 PM in Atlanta and 11 AM in Las Vegas.
That means that east coasters will need to wake up before the sun rises for eight matches, and west coasters will need to wake up early (or stay up late) for those eight and another eight. The 32 remaining group stage matches, along with the remainder of the tournament, will air at times that European soccer fans are more accustomed to.
Two summers ago in Russia, there were some timing issues, but nothing like this. Just one match started before 8 AM on the east coast, and nine started at 8 AM on the dot. In 2022, that amount will nearly be doubled.
And with the tournament now taking place in November and December, rather than June and July, Fox Sports will have potential broadcast conflicts with its cash cow, the NFL (and college football to a lesser extent, at least for one Saturday). The 2022 World Cup will take place over four Sundays, but thankfully, one of those is a rest day. On the first Sunday of the tournament, the two latest kickoffs are a 11 AM and 2 PM on the east coast – right in the heart of Fox’s NFL Sunday coverage. They’ll likely be shunted off to FS1. The second Sunday of the tournament features a pair of Round of 16 games, kicking off at 10 AM and 2 PM, respectively. They’ll probably also be bumped to FS1.
But after the rest Sunday, we get to the final Sunday of the tournament which is….the World Cup Final, beginning at 10 AM on the east coast. There is absolutely no way that Fox can realistically air the *World Cup Final* on cable and not be castigated across the board. If Fox airs the game on broadcast, it’ll definitely eat up Fox NFL Kickoff, and if the game runs into added extra time, it could start eating into Fox NFL Sunday. That would generate some complaints from football fans, but those complaints would pale in comparison to the scorn Fox would receive in moving the Final to FS1.
Two years ago, FS1 matches were plentiful in the group stage, but not so much after that – just two knockout matches (the France-Uruguay and Brazil-Belgium quarterfinals, both airing on Friday, July 6th) did not air on broadcast TV.
One potential fix for Fox’s possible scheduling headache could be a similar one to what CBS did this fall. After the Masters was postponed to November, CBS was looking at a scheduling glut around Week 10 of the 2020 NFL season. Instead of having games overlapping with the final round of Masters coverage, CBS instead has all of its Week 10 NFL games in the late window. Fox could theoretically do something similar with the first and second Sundays of the World Cup, using soccer to lead in to football instead of programming the NFL on broadcast against the World Cup on cable.
There’s also the slight problem of Thanksgiving (which will be on November 24th in 2022, the fourth match day of the group stage). But given that the last match kicks off at 2 PM, Fox could choose to eschew a pregame show ahead of a late afternoon kickoff if it wanted to air the World Cup on broadcast rather than cable.
Much of Fox’s plans will likely have to do with whether or not the United States actually qualifies for Qatar 2022 (which is far from a sure thing). It’s difficult to claim that the USMNT’s humiliating failure to qualify for Russia 2018 didn’t impact Fox’s plans for that that tournament, which included two-thirds of the network’s match broadcasters calling games off monitors in LA.
Fox’s soccer coverage is in something of a precarious position going into Qatar 2022. The lone league, following the Bundesliga’s departure to ESPN+, the network has rights to is Major League Soccer, whose deal reportedly ends after the 2022 season. If MLS doesn’t re-up with Fox, we’re looking at a situation where the 2023 Women’s World Cup from Australia and New Zealand and the 2026 World Cup from the US, Canada, and Mexico will be airing on a network that only has scraps of the rest of the soccer world (various Concacaf events and US Soccer matches). And if we get to that point in two years, and Fox knows it won’t have much in the way of soccer coverage outside of FIFA’s major tournaments, why wouldn’t they give the NFL priority?
The winter World Cup is a shitty situation for nearly all parties involved, but the addition of inconvenient match times is leading to a situation where Fox will be torn between the NFL and soccer’s premiere tournament. If this was any other country, it wouldn’t be much of a decision, but in the American sports world, the NFL is king.