By Michael Bennett
The 2018 World Cup in Russia has gotten off to a great start on the pitch.
But on TV?
Not so much.
Through the first round, TV viewership from the U.S. has dropped about 44% compared with the last tournament in 2014, according to data from Nielsen.
The drop is consistent across English-language broadcasts on Fox and the Spanish-language broadcasts on NBCUniversal’s Telemundo (owned by Comcast). Games on Fox have averaged 1.98 million viewers, compared with 3.55 million on ESPN in 2014. Telemundo’s games have drawn an average audience of 1.87 million viewers, down from 3.3 million on Univision four years ago.
Together, the two networks paid more than $1 billion for the U.S. rights to the tournament in Russia and the 2022 event in Qatar, and now they both face the same headwinds.
The U.S. team, historically the strongest draw for domestic viewers, failed to qualify for the 2018 tournament. Time zones also mean games start as early as 6 a.m. on the East Coast, earlier than the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Both networks are newcomers to World Cup broadcasts.
The tournament is also probably experiencing the effects of rapidly changing viewership habits, according to sports media consultant Chris Bevilacqua. There’s a steady stream of people surrendering their cable subscriptions in exchange for digital offerings, a trend that’s affecting nearly everyone in television.
“It’s a combination of all these things that leads you to this drop,” Bevilacqua said. “These numbers aren’t necessarily a shock. This is probably along the lines of what the networks thought was going to happen once the U.S. failed to qualify.”