U.S. Women’s Run at World Cup Lifts Ratings for Ailing Fox

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Women’s soccer has achieved what most new shows have failed to deliver at Fox: a surge in viewers.

With the success of the U.S. team led by midfielder Carli Lloyd and forward Alex Morgan, Fox’s ratings have risen as much as 23 percent since the FIFA Women’s World Cup began airing in prime time on June 12. The recent gains are the network’s first since late March, when the new hit “Empire” was the hottest show on TV. Fox has lost a fifth of its viewers this TV season, which began in September.

The popularity of the tournament underscores the growing audience for soccer in the U.S., especially among young viewers and women. The Fox network, part of 21st Century Fox Inc., has made coverage of the Women’s World Cup a flagship summer event, attracting sponsors like Fiat and Samsung, and delivering record audiences, including a doubling of the female audience compared with four years ago. Network executives say ratings are substantially higher than they expected.

“When the U.S. plays, we see the numbers go up every time,” Bill Wanger, the Fox Sports executive in charge of programming, research and content strategy, said in an interview. “We’re using each game to push to the next game.”

The ongoing bribery scandal at FIFA has made no discernable impact. About 5.7 million viewers tuned in Friday night to watch the U.S. take on China in the quarterfinal, when Lloyd headed in the ball in the 51st minute for the game’s only score.

It was the third most-watched women’s soccer match of all-time, and the most for a non-final. That surpassed the 5 million who watched the U.S. beat Nigeria on June 16, which gave Fox its best Tuesday night since October 2014 and set an early-round record.

The U.S. team is one win away from reaching another final. It will face Germany in the semifinal match on Tuesday at 7 p.m. New York time. Coverage on Fox starts at 6. The other semifinal, between Japan and England, will be on the Fox Sports 1 cable channel on July 1.

16 Games

So far, viewing is up 42 percent from four years ago, when Walt Disney Co.’s ESPN carried the tournament from Germany, Fox said. When ESPN2 carried the Women’s World Cup 20 years ago, five games averaged 155,000 viewers, according to Nielsen.

The Fox network is broadcasting 16 Women’s World Cup Games, the most in the event’s 24-year history, using rights acquired in 2011 to bring in young viewers over the summer, with other games on its cable outlets. The network’s coverage of the U.S. Open, one of the four major tournaments in men’s golf, also ranks among its most-watched summer telecasts.

Live sports have been central to Fox’s growth since 1993, when the network stunned its rivals and scored rights to National Football League games. Football draws the largest audience of any sport, and has helped improve prime-time ratings at CBS and NBC in recent years.

Four years ago, Fox outbid ESPN for English-language rights to the World Cup in the U.S. with an offer of more than $400 million, according to reports at the time. Media analysts have been predicting soccer’s rise for years, as kids who grew up playing came of age and the country grew more diverse. In February, the network extended its deal by four years to 2026.

‘On the Up’

“Soccer is without a shadow of a doubt on the up in the U.S.,” said Martin Cass, chief executive officer of Assembly, an ad agency that buys media for clients including Expedia, New York Life and Timberland. “If you look at the growth amongst women and men, among teenagers, it’s a big deal.”

While soccer isn’t routinely as popular as football or basketball, events like the World Cup can draw tens of millions of U.S. viewers -- especially when games are played in the Western Hemisphere.

This year’s World Cup is in Canada. The last time the Women’s World Cup was held in North America, 18 million people watched the U.S. beat China in the final.

To boost viewing, Fox reserved prime-time slots on the East Coast, and games featuring the U.S. team thus far are the network’s most-watched programs this month in the 18-to-49-year-old age group coveted by advertisers. That’s good news for the network, which has struggled to replace aging hits like “American Idol,” and has allowed its publicists to boast of double- and triple-digit gains in viewers.

Talkshow Slapdown

Soccer has also given Fox a platform to promote new and upcoming shows, a needed boost for a network where profit slid 50 percent in the March quarter and broadcast ad sales tumbled 7 percent.

“Fox was smart to put their money in soccer today and for the foreseeable future,” said Daniel Durbin, director of the Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media and Society at the University of Southern California. “It’s on the upswing and I wouldn’t be at all surprised, four years from now, to see the next World Cup finals numbers dwarf the numbers for the World Series.”

The event has even drawn support from Fox’s rivals. Comic actress Amy Poehler joined NBC late-night host Seth Meyers last week in calling out Sports Illustrated writer Andy Benoit, who said women’s sports aren’t worth watching.

“Really Andy Benoit, there’s nothing in women’s sports worth watching,” Poehler said. “I’d think a lot of people would love to watch you say that to Serena Williams, really.

(An earlier version of this story was corrected to reflect the location of the Women's World Cup tournament in 2011.)