Commentary

World Cup 2018: Brisk Ad Sales, But How Many Americans Will Watch?

Fox and Telemundo caught some breaks in ad sales for the 2018 World Cup. Because the NBA finals went only four games, a considerable number of advertising dollars shifted over to the World Cup. Fueled by buys from official sponsors such as Nike, Adidas, Coca-Cola, and McDonald’s as well as Amazon and Google, Telemundo is reporting that it has sold out inventory, and Fox has also reported very strong ad sales. In the absence of other high-viewership options this time of the year, movie studios and financial services firms have also redirected some money to the World Cup in an attempt to make a short-term impact.

Without a doubt, the World Cup has some things going for it. The 2014 World Cup saw global viewership of 3.2 billion for all games (an estimated 46% of the world’s population) and more than 700 million for the final game alone. The World Cup and the Olympics are as big as it gets for global companies in terms of an internationally viewed sporting event.

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But in spite of these advantages, there are some major obstacles facing this year’s advertisers. With the U.S. team failing to qualify, it is inevitable that there will be downward pressure on ratings. Americans love to root for the home team, especially when it is winning. In 2014, ABC televised four games featuring the U.S. team. They drew a highly respectable average of 4.6 million viewers each, accounting for a lofty 20% of overall viewership. That is off the board in 2018. And the early starting times in the U.S. of games played in Russia are also a major problem, especially on weekdays, when it is hard for people at work to watch.

Absent the U.S. team, it is doubtful that ratings can match 2014, and early indications are that it will be an uphill battle. Fox is combating that by carrying 38 games on the flagship network this year, vs. just 10 for ABC in 2014, which should help overall viewership. Moreover, some early match-ups have drawn decent ratings for Fox, including Mexico’s major upset over Germany, and the “upset draw” between Brazil and Sweden. Feel-good stories being played up by Fox, such as the success of tiny Iceland and human interest stories are also a positive force. Yet, these is no substitute for having the U.S. Men’s team actually play in the tournament.

So under these circumstances, what should advertisers do? In one sense there is more opportunity for domestic advertisers to stand out, as some traditional World Cup advertisers such as Castrol, Johnson & Johnson, and Emirates have chosen to leave as a result of wanting to distance themselves from FIFA’s negative image. And for the first time, a majority of the top nine global sponsors are not U.S-based, with four U.S. company sponsors, two China company sponsor, and one each for Germany, Russia, Korea.

One tact advertisers are taking was evidenced in the 2018 Super Bowl and 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and the considerable growth in the number of corporate social responsibility appeals to attract Millennials. So, it’s no surprise that we are seeing similar appeals for the World Cup, from Visa emphasizing how all countries come together in the spirit of unity to Iceland Air focusing on how its tiny country persevered to qualify for this year’s Cup.

It’s too early to pick the global ad campaign winners but those companies that stand out with themes related to unity in the current politically turbulent environment, as well as those successfully standing out with appeals to CSR, will bring home the trophy.

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