The World Cup kicks off in Qatar on November 20, and while the event itself is surrounded by geopolitical controversy and intrigue, US TV partners are betting that a confluence of events (Lionel Messi’s last World Cup, the US national team scored a favorable draw) could not only bolster their bottom line, but also energize soccer fans in the US, with North America hosting the event in 2026.
Fox Sports has the English-language rights, with games broadcast on Fox and Fox Sports 1, while Telemundo Deportes has the Spanish-language rights, with games broadcast on Telemundo, Universo and on Peacock.
Unusual timing for the event — the tournament is usually held in the summer, but Qatar’s climate necessitated a shift to November — could hamper or help any network navigate NFL rights (Fox has a Sunday afternoon game and Telemundo has Sunday Night Football), but also try to use the busy schedule to raise awareness of the event.
For Fox, that means all eyes are on Black Friday, November 25, in what will be the biggest first-round match (at least for English-speaking viewers), when the US takes on England.
“We’re treating it like a national holiday, we’re treating it like a Super Bowl Sunday,” Fox Sports executive producer David Neal told me. The Hollywood Reporter at a World Cup preview event in New York.
That means extensive promotions during Fox’s Thanksgiving Day NFL game, as well as on Fox News. There’s even a Fox football balloon ready to fly during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
“We’re really going to build towards that game, and then we’re really going to hope that the US gets further in the tournament,” Neal added.
Fox football analysts such as Alexi Lalas are bullish on the game (Lalas predicted it will produce a “monstrous number” in the ratings), but also on the US’s chances of making it out of the first round.
“The US will be put in the position of being the underdog [which is where they are comfortable]’ said Lalas.
Having the US in the tournament “is a great luxury,” says Neal, especially compared to the 2018 tournament in Russia, for which the US was sidelined. However, Fox was able to learn from that experience and try to create compelling stories about other teams.
“We’re going to try to make a lot of storytelling gold out of those other matchups,” says Neal.
“Four years ago we learned a lot of lessons about how to organize an event without the US. I think this is one of our greatest moments,” he added.
Chief among them this year is Messi, the Argentine legend, who will make his last appearance in the tournament this year. “That’s honestly the biggest story for us, as is almost everything,” said Ray Warren, the president of Telemundo Deportes.
And while Fox leans towards the big Black Friday US-England game, Telemundo is pushing for a rebranding of Thanksgiving for its own purposes.
“Our fan base is much broader ethnically and we need to serve all of them, including the US,” says Warren. “USA-England is also going to be huge for us just because of a purely football event, but on Thanksgiving Day, which is sort of ‘Dia de Futbol’, we have four World Cup games and Thanksgiving night [NFL] American football.”
And both companies have a few tricks up their sleeves.
Fox is betting that this futuristic set on the Corniche in Doha will draw fans in with a full LED field, ultra high-definition screens and other technological innovations.
“It will be visible from Mars,” Neal jokes, calling it “the most high-tech piece of technology you’ve ever seen on television.”
And Telemundo, meanwhile, is betting on Peacock, the easiest place to live stream World Cup matches in the US (in Spanish only, of course… Fox will stream full match replays on Tubi).
And Telemundo is betting that its audience will tune in by large numbers.
“Every week, crowds of people watch the NFL, not so much the Spanish-language version,” says Warren. “So you know, we’re pretty sure that masses of Hispanic viewers will be watching the World Cup. during that [NFL] periods.”
Regardless of what happens on the field, the World Cup is going to be big business for both networks, with Guggenheim analyst Michael Morris forecasting $125 million in ad revenue from Fox alone (Fox and Telemundo grossed about $225 million between them in 2018).
But if the US gets past the first round, or if there’s a final with Portugal’s Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo… watch out.