The U.S. men’s national soccer team lost to last-place Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday night on the last day of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2018 men’s World Cup, failing to make the tournament for the first time since 1986. But the team isn’t the biggest loser of the night.
The shocking result left players and fans distraught, but behind the scenes, network executives faced greater agitation, wondering if bullish bets on soccer in the United States would pay off.
The most notable casualty is Fox, which in 2011 paid a reported $425 million to broadcast FIFA matches — including the 2018 and 2022 men’s World Cups — in English in the United States. Even at a major increase from the combined $425 million ESPN and Univision paid for English and Spanish rights for the 2010 and 2014 tournaments under the most recent contract, the deal at the time fit nicely into Fox’s overall broadcasting strategy.
In 2013, Fox launched its own national sports cable networks, FS1 and FS2, to compete with ESPN. The next two World Cups were intended to help fill the vast amount of airtime the networks created. The purchase was probably also part of a bigger strategy to increase Fox’s soccer broadcast portfolio, demonstrated by its 2013 purchase of the German Bundesliga’s global television rights starting with the 2015-2016 season.
Now the U.S. team’s loss is Fox’s loss, as some of the gains it earned in beating out ESPN and NBC for the broadcasting rights are diminished. Reportedly, Fox will distribute World Cup matches across its portfolio of channels, saving premier matches for FS1 and its signature network. FS1 is presently carried by every major cable provider, but the network has yet to dethrone ESPN as cable’s most-watched prime time network. Coverage of the United States in the men’s World Cup next year could have changed that and shifted Fox’s position in the sports cable network marketplace.
With lower viewership, that also means Fox will make less profit from its FIFA investment. The network partially rationalized its bullish offer on the ad revenue that the 2018 and 2022 World Cups would generate. Advertising costs are based on viewership of an event and thus far, Fox has secured significant advertising deals with Verizon and Volkswagen for the 2018 tournament. However, a significant portion of Fox’s ad inventory remains available, as sponsors were waiting to see whether the USMNT earned a bid. American interest in the 2018 World Cup will be much lower now that the United States won’t be in the tournament, as data from the 2014 World Cup shows Americans are more inclined to watch matches involving the United States.
Like Fox, Major League Soccer may also feel effects. MLS is currently riding a wave of explosive growth. Launching in 1996 with 10 teams, the league is now home to 22 teams, with more fans attending its matches than ever. Earlier this season, expansion team Atlanta United broke the league’s attendance record — set in its inaugural season — when 70,425 people attended its match vs. Orlando City SC.
MLS could see growth of sponsorship revenue slow now. Over the past year, the league has experienced a sponsorship boom, with brands like Target and Kellogg’s Snack Brands partnering with it for the first time. Terms of these deals remain undisclosed, but their valuation is driven in part by the league’s viewership. While a number of factors played into these brands signing with MLS, some think American interest in future World Cups and the possibility of the United States hosting the 2026 World Cup pushed corporations to engage more with MLS. If the league’s audience and American interest in soccer decline leading up to and after next summer’s tournament, MLS may see a shift in sponsors.
The surprising loss has also reignited questions over the strength of soccer development in the United States and the need for more robust youth programs. But U.S. youth participation in the game shouldn’t suffer a great decline. In 2014, U.S. Youth Soccer celebrated its 40th year of existence. That year — a World Cup year — the organization reported 3,055,148 registered youth players. This number was a mere 0.7 percent increase from 2010, when the previous World Cup was played. The United States played in both. So an argument can be made that when the United States appears in the tournament, it has a negligible impact on the growth of youth participation nationally. It is worth noting, though, that only 1,615,041 American children played soccer when the United States began its streak of World Cup appearances in 1990 (by beating Trinidad and Tobago on the final day of qualification in 1989).
Less obvious are the potential legal ramifications for U.S. soccer’s governing body, which faces two separate, notable lawsuits.
In 2016, five members of the U.S. women’s national team sued the U.S. Soccer Federation, alleging wage discrimination. The plaintiffs allege that members of the team earn as much as four times less than members of the men’s team, despite winning the 2015 women’s World Cup and gold in the 2012 London Olympic Games.
Historically, governing bodies have justified higher wages for male athletes on factors including revenue production, game attendance and viewership. Within their lawsuit, the women’s team plaintiffs refer to a 2016 budget adopted by USSF. That budget projects the women’s team generating more revenue than the men’s team in 2016 and 2017. It was adopted before the men failed to qualify for the 2018 tournament, so it’s now almost certainly out of date — the women will earn even more money than the men will. That could help support the women’s legal claims.
The second lawsuit the USSF faces was filed in September by the North American Soccer League after the federation stripped it of its Division II status. In its claim, the NASL alleges that this maneuver and the failure of the USSF to consider granting it Division I status violates federal antitrust law, as it’s anticompetitive.
The USSF may actually benefit in the NASL lawsuit from claims of a lack of developed talent in the U.S. The federation could argue that the presence of multiple divisions in the U.S. spreads talent out, diluting the core of development and strength of the men’s national team. Thus, under federal antitrust law’s Rule of Reason, the USSF may defend by asserting that granting MLS sole Division I status and refusing to grant NASL Division I or Division II status is necessary to properly develop soccer talent in America to compete on the world stage. The federation could run into some hurdles in making this argument, though, because Tuesday’s national team roster featured a lineup predominantly comprising MLS players.
Time will tell what the true ramifications are of the U.S. men not appearing in next year’s World Cup. With all that’s at stake, perhaps the greatest benefit of the loss is no American will be able to say any longer that soccer isn’t interesting.
CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the price Fox Sports paid for World Cup rights. It was $425 million, not $4.25 million.