Busy Month Highlighted by Fox Sports’ First Women’s World Cup, U.S. Open Golf Coverage
Fox Sports stepped onto the FIFA pitch for the first time, with unprecedented coverage of the Women’s World Cup in Canada, which kicked off on Saturday with the host nation’s defeat of China. And, June 18-21, the programmer will take its first swings at U.S. Open golf from Chambers Bay in University Place, WA, with plenty of primetime positioning.
These marquee events are just part of a busy schedule that encompasses 18 MLB games; the UEFA Champions League final; a quartet of MLS matches, including “Rivalry Week” contests; two U.S. men’s national team friendlies; three NASCAR Sprint Cup, three NASCAR Camping World Truck, and two Xfinity races; and a pair of UFC Fight Nights.
There will also be FIFA U-20 World Cup, UEFA Euro qualifiers, NASCAR qualifiers, UFC weigh-ins and prelims, U.S. Senior Open golf, boxing, IMSA racing, and 24 Hours of LeMans, among other properties.
The following is a scorecard of sorts for June at Fox Sports.
Women’s World Cup
This is the biggest month for Fox Sports from a soccer perspective, according to David Nathanson, head of business operations.
Also on Saturday, FC Barcelona defeated Juventus to win the UEFA Champions League Final in Berlin, providing a futbol appetizer for the Women’s World Cup opener, the debut of the 52-match tourney that will culminate with the championship match in Vancouver. Fox’s “Summer of Soccer” also features continued coverage of Major League Soccer, including the domestic circuit’s All-Star Game, a pair of friendlies involving the U.S. men’s national team, the Gold Cup, and then the International Champions Cup tourney, headlined by some of the world’s top clubs and MLS sides.
“It’s going to be one of the most exciting summers of soccer,” Nathanson says.
As for the action north of the border, Fox Sports will cover all 52 matches, including 16 on Fox, the most ever for a U.S. broadcaster — no matter the gender. Five will air in primetime. Fox Sports 1 will proffer 29 contests and Fox Sports 2 seven. Digitally, all the matches will be simulcast on Fox Sports Go app and FoxSportsGo.com.
In addition, FIFA World Cup Today and FIFA World Cup Tonight will preview and review the action as Fox airs more than 200 total hours over the course of the tourney.
“It’s an unparalleled commitment to the World Cup, men’s or women’s,” says Nathanson.
During the course of the event, premium service Fox Soccer Plus is being rebranded FIFA Women’s World Cup Channel and will be home to replays of the matches and its attendant shoulder programming. There will also be also a bevy of archival programming, with heavy emphasis on classic U.S. women’s national team matches. The service counts DirecTV, Dish, Time Warner Cable, AT&T U-verse, Verizon FiOS, Cablevision, Cox (selected markets), and RCN among its affiliates.
Nathanson offers no Nielsen predictions: “There will be quality features and telecasts. We hope the ratings will follow.”
That could depend in large part on the success of the U.S. women’s team. Ranked second in the world, the side, led by all-time international goal scorer Abby Wambach, is one of the favorites despite the questionable condition of one of its other primary faces, Alex Morgan.
In addition to features on all 24 of the participating nations, Nathanson notes, “there are crew members from Germany, England, and Mexico, and they won’t be rooting for the U.S. As a network and Americans, we will be supporting the U.S. women and want them to perform well. “
He characterizes Fox Sports as “pleasantly surprised” by the advertising market’s reception of the tourney, for which Nationwide and Fiat are presenting sponsors for the preview and recap shows. Nathanson says those companies and “other sponsors want to be associated with the continued growth of soccer in this country and this phenomenal team.”
He’s also “very optimistic” that, as the tournament progresses, Fox “will have continued success” on the ad front.
“I was in Zurich four years ago to bid,” he says. “It was such a coup [for Fox Sports] to be awarded the rights. We’ve been planning for the Women’s World Cup ever since. This is not a test run for the men in Russia in 2018. It’s one of the preeminent events in all of sports, and we’re putting all of our chips to deliver on our promise to FIFA, the USOC, and soccer fans. [Fox Sports] couldn’t be prouder to be associated with the World Cup.”
Nathanson calls the competition from Chambers Bay “monumental for Fox Sports. It’s one of the most prestigious events in all of sports, and we’re going to provide unparalleled coverage.”
For the 115th U.S. Open Championship, Fox Sports will tee off 38.5 live hours from Thursday June 18 through Sunday June 21, 3.5 hours more than NBC’s and ESPN’s coverage of last year’s event. Fox Broadcasting will air 22.5 hours, compared with 19 on the Peacock in 2014. Some 11.5 hours are slated for primetime, versus five in 2012, the last time the tournament was held in the Pacific Time Zone. FS1 will offer 16 hours, and Fox Deportes will air three hours each on Saturday and Sunday, marking the first time the tourney will be presented in Spanish.
Declining to reveal the details at this juncture, Nathanson says that “technological innovations” in play are “going to bring fans as close to the game as possible. We’re committed to enhancing the broadcast without distracting viewers.”
Digital coverage will also be expansive, with 120 hours on Fox Sports Go and U.S. Open platforms, showcasing three alternative production feeds. “There are so many players you can’t see them all on the linear telecast,” he says. “It’s really the perfect event for digital.”
Fox notes that the U.S. Open connects with a different audience and demographic from the World Cup’s. “It’s a great opportunity for us to spread our wings and welcome new viewers. It’s a quality audience, and sponsors are looking to be a part of that.”
It has been a season of starts and stops on the NASCAR track; the circuit’s schedule has often been slowed by rain. Still, Fox Broadcasting has seen its first gains with NASCAR in four years, averaging a 4.5 rating/7.6 million viewers, 5% more than the 4.3/7 million in 2014.
“There isn’t anything you can do about the weather. NASCAR is still very important to our company and the networks,” says Nathanson. “We feel there is still a huge upside.”
Underlining its commitment, Fox will add four-time NASCAR Cup series champion Jeff Gordon to its on-air team in 2016. Gordon, who is retiring this season, has worked on a trio of races for the programmer’s coverage of the Xfinity circuit this season.
Last Sunday, FS1 averaged 3.94 million viewers for its presentation of the NASCAR Sprint Cup race from Dover International Speedway. The race, the fifth-most-viewed program in the network’s history, provided a significant lead-in for Fox Sports Live, whose following 18-minute edition tallied 2.77 million watchers, the most ever for the network’s news show. The pair stood as the most-watched sports fare on cable on May 31.
The competition from Dover is the second-most-viewed NASCAR telecast on FS1, trailing only the 4.06 million who watched the action from Martinsville, VA, earlier this year. The 2015 and 2014 editions of the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race rank seventh (3.84 million) and 10th (3.48 million), respectively, for the network overall; last year’s NASCAR Sprint Unlimited is ninth (3.53 million). All told, NASCAR accounts for five of FS1’s top 10 shows, with the balance, including the top three, coming from the 2014 MLB postseason.
FS1 finishes up the first half of the season with a trio of Sprint Cup races — at Pocono Raceway, Michigan International Speedway, and Sonoma Raceway on June 7, 14, and 28, respectively — before turning the keys over to NBC Sports Group for the second half of the campaign.
Fox’s commitment to the elite mixed-martial-arts circuit is yielding double-digit advances for UFC Fight Night on FS1. Year to date, Fight Night has logged a 20% jump in viewership on FS1, flanked by a 19% rise among adults 18-49 and 14% for men in that age group.
The matches prior to UFC pay-per-view cards are also scoring with viewers. “The prelims leading into UFC pay-per-view events have been great,” says Nathanson. “UFC has done right giving us great matches. “
He also notes the 21st season of Ultimate Fighter, which not only moved from its Las Vegas home but has pinned a new format. In this version of the reality competition show, rival squads from South Florida, American Top Team and Blackzillians, vie for $500,000.
“The local rivalry is quite compelling. You should check it out,” he suggests.
Fox Broadcasting is only two weeks into its primetime run-up to the Mid-Summer Classic, and FS1 is enjoying early-season Nielsen success. Through May 23, the cable network had scored a 20% rise in viewership and a 21% uptick in 18-49, according to Nielsen data.
“It’s such a long season. There are great storylines to build momentum heading into the All-Star Game,” says Nathanson. “We have a lot more do with MLB this season.”