Impact of U.S.'s World Cup absence on Fox? 'Like $200 million flushed down the toilet'

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When Fox Sports paid FIFA upwards of $400 million for the right to televise World Cups between 2015 and 2022, the thought, in all likelihood, barely crossed its mind. It shelled out the colossal sum, the biggest ever for World Cup rights in the U.S., under the assumption that the American men would be in both Russia and Qatar. And when the possibility that they wouldn’t appear at next summer’s tournament arose?

“That would [be] like $200 million flushed down the toilet,” Fox Sports president Eric Shanks said earlier this year.

Shanks was joking, but the sentiment behind the remark has now smacked Fox flush in the face after the U.S. shockingly failed to qualify for the 2018 tournament Tuesday night in Trinidad. The World Cup was set to be the biggest production operation in Fox Sports history, and it still will be. But it won’t be nearly as lucrative an event without the U.S. involved.

The four U.S. matches at the 2014 World Cup drew English-language audiences of between 10.8 and 18.2 million. Those figures were between two and four times the audience for ESPN’s average match telecast.

With Fox up against a less favorable time difference – Moscow is eight hours ahead of the U.S. east coast; Rio De Janeiro is one – it already faced challenges. The U.S.’s absence compounds them. It will be difficult for the network to deliver on promises to sponsors already inked, and more difficult to attract other advertisers who could come on board between now and June.

“They were already going to be lower than 2014 on ABC/ESPN/ESPN2 with the time zone difference, but now that drop will be exacerbated,” Sports Business Daily editor Austin Karp told Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch. “There will be much less buzz headed into the summer. The World Cup final will do an okay number, but the group stage and early knockout rounds take a hit without the U.S.”

Fox’s solution? Probably to go all in on the Mexican team, while investing slightly more time and resources in other major storylines, world-renowned players and popular teams.

“We are embracing El Tri and we have since the Confederations Cup,” Shanks said last month at a launch event. “We have the Gold Cup every two years. I think this country going from a sporting event to a cultural event, you have people just rooting for the U.S. But I think this country has evolved from a soccer fandom where they are super interested in Neymar, Messi, Ronaldo. If you were a soccer fan in the world, this would be the place for you to live. You get more world class soccer here. This is a soccer country.”​

Nonetheless, ratings will inevitably take a hit. Fox Sports issued a statement Wednesday saying that its plans were unchanged. But the network is undoubtedly crushed that the American team won’t join it in Russia. And despite a hugely successful 2015 women’s World Cup, with a winter World Cup in the Qatari desert looming in 2022, Fox can’t be feeling great about the massive investment it made six years ago.

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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.