The unbearable heat of Qatar pushed the FIFA World Cup out of the summer months for the first time in the tournament’s history. In 2022, the quadrennial footballing soccer showcase won’t crown a new champion before jackets come out of closets across America. The upcoming global event will run from Nov. 20 to Dec. 18, coinciding with Weeks 11 through 15 of the NFL season, college football’s rivalry week, the first full month of the NHL, NBA, and college basketball seasons, as well as starting just after the World Series concludes.
If that sounds like a lot, it’s because that’s exactly what it is. A logjam of sports’ most crowded time of the year is set to burst with soccer’s premier showcase shifting a few months back on the calendar. Competing against Major League Baseball with a traditional Summer World Cup for domestic television viewership (and the occasional huge boxing match or MMA fight) is low-hanging fruit. Of course, the World Cup wins with shorter games, bigger stars, extreme stakes, and no commercials during the run of play.
The global television ratings for the World Cup aren’t in doubt, as this year’s edition should break the all-time viewership record, just like the editions in Brazil and Russia did eight and four years ago respectively. What’s worth focusing on is the impact in America. We just completed Week 1 of the NFL season, full of drama with kickers, Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen continuing to confuse defenses, and whatever the hell Nathaniel Hackett decided was a good idea for a two-minute drill.
The 2018 World Cup averaged 5.04 million viewers per game on Fox Sports and Telemundo, without the United States men’s national team competing. That’s down nearly 40 percent from 2014 (more than 8 million viewers) and 11 percent from 2010 (5.65 million), the last two World Cups under the last ESPN and Univision television deals. The Yanks were eliminated in the Round of 16 in both tournaments.
This year’s World Cup will have at least one game every day from Nov. 20 to Dec. 6, from the tournament’s opening game of host Qatar versus Ecuador, which might have its tournament berth stripped, to two matches with quarterfinal berths on the line 16 days later. The most challenging days for ratings for the event will be the three Sundays the NFL also has a full slate of games and the jam-packed Thanksgiving dockets from every active sport. The diehard soccer fans who would pay hundreds for a pay-per-viewing of games in the middle of the night aren’t the crowd to be concerned about. Neither are the jackasses who claim soccer is boring because of the lack of scoring and the offsides rule should be abolished.
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It’s the casual soccer fans, the same ones that become experts on gymnastics and swimming every four years at the Olympics. Country pride is part of the reason Americans became enamored with Caeleb Dressel and Simone Biles. It’s also that the Summer Olympics wrap during the NFL preseason. Soccer fans in the know have become obsessed with the Premier League club Leeds United, with an American coach and two Yanks’ locks for Qatar in the fold. The number of soccer fans in America no doubt feels like it’s growing with Ted Lasso and more avenues to watch the game worldwide.
The record USA viewership for a soccer game isn’t a men’s contest. It was the American women beating Japan 5-2 in the 2015 FIFA World Cup Final, with 25.4 million viewers. It demolished the previous record for the U.S. men’s 2014 World Cup group-stage game against Portugal, which drew a viewership of 18.7 million. The male record is going to fall during this next World Cup at some point, if not multiple times. The NFL won’t stand in the way of a single-game viewing record going down. What will be affected is the overall tune-in. For context, that USA-Japan match would’ve been the 18th most-viewed television broadcast of 2021. Except for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ inauguration and Biden’s April address to Congress, every other broadcast in the top 17 was an NFL game.
During the NFL season, it’s already their time to dominate sports television. Everyone else gets the scraps. Neither the Winter nor Summer Olympics fall during the season, so we’ll finally get to see if a worldwide quadrennial showcase can break through. The chances of American success impacting the ratings are low. It’ll be more about defining the USA soccer culture with kickoff times anywhere from 3 p.m. EST to 3 a.m. PST. I’m betting with the USA being one of the host countries of the 2026 World Cup, soccer fans show up and deliver huge ratings.