American World Cup Rights Fees Soar Along With Viewership – Forbes

On Thursday the Brazilian national soccer team will kick off over a month of non-stop soccer with its first World Cup match against Croatia. All of the action will of course be televised live in the United States, but while that extensive coverage might be taken for granted now, it was merely a pipe dream not too long ago. In fact, though some World Cup action was first aired live in the United States in 1982, it wasn’t until 1998 that all World Cup matches were televised live in the States.

Things have changed quite a bit since then, and network investments reflect the increased exposure. When TNT secured the rights to the 1990 World Cup, the cable network wound up on the hook for just $7.75 million. Four years later ESPN ESPN paid $11 million for the English-language rights, and it doubled its payout to $22 million for the 1998 tournament in France (these are represented as a combined $33 million the below graph).

Compare that to the $425 million check Fox Fox will write for the rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups (plus a handful of other rights, including the Women’s World Cup). That’s not only a massive increase over the tournaments of the 1990s, but also over even more recent years: The same package cost ESPN just $100 million for the previous two World Cups, in 2010 and 2014.


Similarly, Telemundo’s $600 million bid for the Spanish-language rights in 2018 and 2022 is up a staggering 85% from the $325 million Univision is paying for the previous two tournaments. But what’s more, the massive growth in rights fees is far from a surprise.

For one, live sports telecasts have become increasingly more valuable in recent years because they are almost exclusively watched live, and not on commercial-skipping DVR. On top of that, Fox likely paid a premium thanks to a need for live programming on its still-fledgling Fox Sports One network. Most importantly, though, American World Cup viewership has been climbing fast.

Nielsen has reported that more than 111 million US viewers watched some of the 2010 World Cup, up 22% from 91.4 million viewers four years earlier. A different study released by FIFA found slightly lower numbers, but still identified that same surge in viewership, claiming that 94.5 million viewers in the United States tuned in to some of the World Cup, a 19% increase from the number who watched in 2006.

Like the rights fees above, that’s also a massive increase from just a few tournaments ago. When TNT paid $7.75 million for the rights in 1990, the highest-rated match in the States was US-Czechoslovakia, which drew just 850,000 viewers.



Note: Viewership figures include both English- and Spanish-language broadcasts in the United States. Also, television viewership is not an exact measurement, and the numbers above are culled from multiple sources (FIFA, Nielsen, Washington Post and The New York Times), so this chart should only be taken to represent a general trend.

There’s a clear relationship between domestic viewership and host country – viewership spiked in the year that the United States hosted the tournament, but dipped in 2002 when games played in Asia were aired live in the middle of the night – but the numbers have been generally on the rise over the last two decades. Little coincidence that the most recent increase, which was in spite of live games often airing in the morning or middle of the day, coincides with soccer’s recent surge in domestic popularity.

This year’s tournament should continue that climb, even if just from matches being played in the evening when it’s easier for American soccer fans to tune in. That continued increase in viewership helps explain just why Fox and Telemundo are willing to spend so much on domestic broadcast rights. Just consider that Fox’s $425 million investment for two World Cups nearly matches the $500 million it spends each year on a season’s worth of MLB broadcast rights.

And it’s of course worth noting that this is all just for the World Cup telecasts in the United States, which is a relatively small soccer market compared to the rest of the world. Broadcasters in other countries are also shelling out big to air the quadrennial tournament. In fact, in 2013 alone FIFA collected a massive $601 million from 2014 World Cup broadcasting rights, making up 43% of its annual revenue. Assuming that ESPN’s $100 million payout for 2010 and 2014 is evenly divided over eight years, its rights fees would make up just 2% of FIFA’s annual World Cup broadcasting income.

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