Tournament ratings up from 2015 despite time zone challenges

The Women’s World Cup soccer tournament in France has thus far been a ratings winner for Fox Sports.

Through Sunday’s action, Fox Sports' FIFA Women’s World Cup coverage is averaging 1.07 million viewers, up 16% through day two of the Round of 16 in 2015 (927,000 viewers) and up 92% compared to 2011 through the Group Stage (559,000 – there was no Round of 16 in 2011), according to Nielsen numbers from Fox.

The numbers are paced by the performance of the U.S. Women's National Team, which rolled through the group stage in record fashion, scoring the most goals ever in the stage (including a 13-0 rout of Thailand in the opener) while shutting out its three opponents, Thailand, Chile and Sweden. The team’s 2-1 win over Spain Monday afternoon in the quarterfinal round drew 3.1 million viewers on FS1, which was down 16% from the 2015 round of 16 game -- although the 2015 game aired in primetime. The USWNT won the 2015 tournament, in Canada, defeating Japan in the final game.

Fox Sports executive vice president of research and content strategy Michael Mulvihill spoke with Multichannel News about Fox Sports’ ratings momentum for its Women’s World Cup tournament coverage. 

MCN: How does Fox Sports view its ratings performance for the Women’s World Cup at this point in the tournament?

Michael Mulvihill: We’re very satisfied. There has never been a case where a World Cup or Olympics moved from a North American site to a site elsewhere in the world and had viewership increase in the U.S. The fact that we are there-quarters of the way through the tournament and our average rating is up really runs counter to the long-term trend of events that go from North America abroad, and it's a really pleasant surprise. I think we’ve been encouraged by the numbers that we’ve seen for the U.S. matches, and we’re encouraged by the [ratings] improvement of the non-U.S. matches. It’s not the case anymore where the American audience tunes in for our national team and nothing else … they’re really tuning into non-U.S. team matches as well. I feel like we’ve had good news on several fronts.

MCN: What do the ratings gains say about the growing audience engagement in women’s sports in general and women’s soccer in particular?

MM: There are always numerous factors in a ratings increase or decrease, but in this case the most important factor is that there really is grass roots growth and interest in women’s athletics generally and women’s soccer specifically. I think the experience we had in 2015 -- which was a tremendous success, and ended in the U.S. winning the championship -- set us up pretty well in terms of being able to grow real interest in the event.

MCN: Viewership for the U.S.-Spain afternoon game was down compared to 2015, when the U.S. quarterfinal game was aired in primetime. Will we continue to see a falloff of ratings for Team USA games as we get closer to the finals due to the time zone difference?

MM: It’s possible, and it’s an obstacle for sure. For some of these U.S. games we’re comparing weekday afternoon windows to weekday primetime widows four years ago. We can also look at the other side of the coin and say because the U.S. game was early yesterday we were able to have a U.S. lead-in for the Sweden-Canada game, and that game did quite a bit better than the comparable non-U.S. game four years earlier. So in aggregate, the day came out close to even with the comparable day in 2015.

MCN: The USA women’s team has been in the news for some controversies that have transpired both on the field and off the field. Does that help or hurt ratings for the games?

MM: The most important factor is winning, and I think the manner in which they got through the group stage certainly helps -- they set a record for the most goals ever scored in a group stage, and they didn’t allow a goal until yesterday’s match. They’ve been proceeding in such a fun-to-watch style of play that I think it does help build momentum as we go through the tournament.

MCN: The Women’s World Cup finals takes place the same day as the Concacaf Gold Cup men's soccer tournament final on July 7 -- are you concerned about the competition potentially diluting your viewership? [Fox Sports also has the English-language U.S. TV rights to the Gold Cup; Univision has the Spanish-language rights. Telemundo has the Spanish-language Women's World Cup U.S. rights.]

MM: No, not at all. I think it's actually a lot of fun. The fact that the Concacaf Gold Cup is going on at the same time as the Women’s World Cup is a feast for soccer fans and it makes for a fun summer season, and I think it will culminate in a really fun day a couple of Sundays from now.

MCN: If the unthinkable happens and the U.S. team loses in the World Cup tournament prior to the finals, are you confident that your Women’s World Cup ratings will remain strong for the rest of the tournament?

MM: Let’s acknowledge reality -- there’s no substitute for having our national team in the finals. That clearly would be our preference, and that’s what will deliver the strongest ratings for us. But we can also point out the game between France and Brazil on Sunday that was the most watched, non-U.S. game ever. So far in the round of 16, the viewership that we’ve seen in the non-U.S. games is about double the rating that the non-US games were doing in the round of 16 four years ago. So there’s no sense in pretending that we want to see the U.S. in the finals because obviously we do, but I think we’ve seen some really positive things in the non-U.S. numbers as well. 

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