Football v soccer: can the World Cup win a US TV battle with the NFL?

<span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

At a World Economic Forum dinner in Davos in 2020, Fifa president Gianni Infantino was all smiles as he gushed over the generational impact the United States was going to have on soccer.

“The United States is on the verge of becoming the soccer power in the world, it’s coming faster than you think,” Infantino swooned as he spoke about the US hosting the 2026 World Cup with Mexico and Canada. “The ‘American Dream’ is something we all need to have, all those who love soccer. The 4 billion people around the world, we all need to dream this dream.”

Now, Fifa’s unique winter World Cup in Qatar is here and should provide a litmus test of US TV audiences’ appetite for the world’s most popular sport. And, for the first time, the World Cup is competing with the NFL and a crowded US sports market for those TV views.

Will NFL fans elect to switch over from Thanksgiving Day classics or their team’s late season playoff push to see two of soccer’s biggest stars, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar, on Thursday? Can a classic group match between heavyweights Spain and Germany pull eyes away from the the NFL’s slate of games on Sunday?

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Experts are skeptical.

“If we’ve learned anything recently, be it the pandemic to anthem kneeling, Black Lives Matter protests or even, quite literally, a future star laying concussed and motionless on the field, 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 referencing the disturbing concussion injury suffered by Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in a recent game.

“Soccer in America has forever been the sport of the future. At what point will it become part of the norm? I think that’s the million-dollar question.”

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

The NFL is not just a competitor, it is the dominates US TV, period. The league recently released TV viewing numbers from 2021 which showed it accounted for 48 of the top 50 TV programs, while the average NFL broadcast pulls in 17.1 million viewers. Those figures make it far and away the leading form of entertainment on US TV screens. At this World Cup, Fifa has four games set to go head-to-head against the NFL – most notably two of them clash in part with the Bills-Lions game on Thanksgiving, when having (American) football on in the background is a tradition.

“I don’t know that [TV ratings] are totally going to flop but the NFL is a completely unique property in terms of being a US ratings juggernaut,” says Charles R Taylor, a sports marketing professor at Villanova University. “There’s nothing harder in the US then going up against the NFL and, given the number of soccer fans there, I think that’s just an uphill battle.”

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

That makes it difficult to imagine New York Jets fans switching away from their team’s first playoff push in 12 years to watch the wizardry of Pedri in the Spain-Germany matchup on 27 November, or fans of the Philadelphia Eagles, one of the favorites for this season’s Super Bowl, electing to watch a potential knockout round game featuring the US on 4 December.

“The advertisers have an expected rating in mind from Fox and they are not going to be happy if the ratings fall below what Fox expected them to be,” says Taylor. “I think expectations are somewhat dampened by this move to that time of year.”

One thing broadcasters Fox Sports and Telemundo have going for them is that the United States has qualified for the tournament. TV ratings for the 2018 World Cup in Russia dropped significantly from four years earlier in Brazil, with an average of 5.04 million Americans watching on Fox and Telemundo in 2018 compared to the 8.06 million average who watched on ESPN and Univision four years earlier. The United States’ failure to qualify for 2018 likely played a significant role in the slump.

Younger Americans are also expected to fuel Qatar ratings, with the Latino population driving much of the interest. A survey by Telemundo recently found nearly three-quarters of US Latinos consider themselves soccer fans and 67% plan to watch the World Cup on TV or another device. The multitude of platforms for viewing matches may also make it difficult to gauge true numbers, experts warned.

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Fifa has favored American viewers by ensuring no US game goes head-to-head with the NFL in the group stage, with favorable 2pm (EST) weekday kickoffs for each of the team’s Group B matches, including on Black Friday when they will face England. Experts expect games on Black Friday and Thanksgiving, when Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal and Neymar’s Brazil are in action against the highly touted Buffalo Bills and lowly Detroit Lions, to be the best barometer of US interest.

“There are more Premier League fans in the US than there are in England so the stars that are playing for England are certainly going to be a draw,” says Beissel. “That’ll be the biggest match that generates probably the most ratings in the group phase and it’s conveniently you know, scheduled right on Black Friday when, in theory, most Americans are off of work.”

US Soccer is aware of this perk, with chief commercial officer David Wright calling the Black Friday time slot an “unbelievable promotional window” to tap into a broad audience and “drive increased levels of fandom.”

The idea that Fifa is pulling out all the stops for the US in its never-ending pursuit of soccer riches is strengthened when looking at the awarding of TV contracts for 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 facing lawsuits from their decision to shift the World Cup in Qatar from the sweltering summer heat to a winter kickoff. Reports suggested Fox paid a 10% increase of $467m on its current deal for 2026 broadcasting rights, netting an extra 24 games at a discount price as the expanded North American edition jumps from 32 to 48 teams and 58 to 80 matches.

“That tournament will draw incredible ratings across the entire North American continent and yet it was given in sort of a quid pro quo as compensation to Fox and Telemundo because of the perception Qatar would have reduced ratings by not being in an optimal place on the sport calendar,” Beissel says. “If it had gone out to bid it would have broken records for broadcast rights, giant tech companies like Apple and Amazon would likely have entered 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 alive after their opening draw with Wales on Monday. Should the men’s national team get on a run, they could imitate the success the US women’s team has had in capturing the imagination of American TV audiences.

“[Americans viewers] are still patriots and they’re still homers to a large extent and they’re not at the point in their fandom where they’ll watch soccer for the love of the game. They’ll watch soccer for the love of the US national team and how they’re doing,” says Vijay Setlur, a sports marketing instructor at the Schulich School of Business. Setlur expects Qatar’s numbers to signal whether winter World Cup bids may hold future appeal as Saudi Arabia is set to host a bid with Greece and Egypt for the 2030 edition.

Fifa, which has been chasing the US market since the 1994 World Cup, is also aware of the NFL’s international threat, including the success of a recent game in Germany. The NFL wants to grow its international business to $1bn annually and is looking at initiatives like flag football at the Olympics to stretch that global appeal.

Fox has been heavily promoting the World Cup during its NFL broadcasts – and it’s worth remembering the vast majority of the games in Qatar won’t clash with the NFL. Fox has also been running a commercial featuring Hollywood heavyweights Jon Hamm and Mariah Carey, plus the NFL’s Tom Brady as it hopes this cross-promotion will drive TV numbers.

“Statistically, viewership levels are always higher in the fall and winter,” Fox executive producer David Neal recently said. “We’re not having to compete with getting people in off the beach or the golf course. Viewers are already accustomed to watching a lot of television this time of the year.”

Still, convincing NFL fans to tune out their team just as the playoff stretch drive kicks in and audiences are growing, with nearly 30 million viewers having tuned in to a recent Sunday game.

“I live in the Philadelphia area, and I don’t see the average Eagles fan tuning the game to watch a game like Germany versus Spain,” says Taylor. “I’m a good example of my generation who will watch some World Cup but they’re never going to convert me into a big-time soccer fan because I just think that the other sports have more action.”