At Women's World Cup, the chance for defeat can draw viewers

AP News
Posted: Jun 04, 2015 2:47 AM
At Women's World Cup, the chance for defeat can draw viewers

NEW YORK (AP) — Just in case any American fans forgot, Women's World Cup broadcaster Fox would like to remind them that the U.S. failed to win the last tournament four years ago — and the two before that.

The United States' status as a favorite in the upcoming World Cup creates the potential for huge audiences if the team advances deep, and network executives are candid about their hopes for a long run by the Americans.

But what can really lure viewers, especially early on, is the opposite: the possibility the U.S. could lose.

David Neal, Fox's executive producer for World Cup coverage, likes to tell this story from his days producing the Olympics at NBC. Before the 2008 Beijing Games, Michael Phelps' pursuit of a record-breaking eight gold medals drew plenty of attention. But what greatly spiked interest was his second event, when his U.S. relay team had to come from behind for a narrow victory.

"The perception was that Michael was so dominant that it wasn't a competition but a coronation," Neal recalled.

The close call in the relay, he added, "sent a message to American viewers that this isn't a done deal."

So it's no coincidence that in promoting the World Cup, which opens Saturday, Fox keeps pointing out that "America has a score to settle."

Expect plenty of images of the 2011 final, when the U.S. twice blew late leads before falling to Japan on penalty kicks. And expect plenty of mentions of how the Americans haven't won the title since they hosted the 1999 tournament, when Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain and the rest of the star-studded roster made the women's team so popular in this country.

"It's the hero who is knocked down and denied that ultimate prize," said Robert Gottlieb, Fox Sports' executive vice president for marketing.

In the case of the Americans' draw at this World Cup, the specter of defeat isn't just hype. The second-ranked U.S. is in the so-called "Group of Death" that also includes No. 5 Sweden and No. 10 Australia. Only two squads are guaranteed to advance.

"We're instilling the idea in our audience that this is not a sure thing," Neal said.

Sixteen of the tournament's 52 matches will air on the main Fox network, with five of those in prime time thanks to the favorable time zones in Canada. That's the most games ever on traditional broadcast television in a single men's or women's World Cup.

ESPN, which previously owned the U.S. English-language World Cup rights, puts most of its top events on the cable channel, not partner ABC. No Women's World Cup matches aired on ABC during the last two tournaments.

Even as it looks to boost its own fledgling cable offering, Fox Sports 1, Fox has stuck to its philosophy of keeping many of the biggest games on the main network. As more and more major sports events migrate to cable, audiences have been healthy for the most appealing matchups — with many viewers no longer making a distinction between an ABC and an ESPN broadcast anyway. But Fox executives are confident that the traditional broadcast network still wields power, especially with an event such as the Women's World Cup that is looking to draw in new fans.

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"The difference between a moderate success and a hit is bringing in viewers with very little basic knowledge or no knowledge at all," Neal said.

The games are also valuable live programming for Fox's lineup at a time of year when many top series are on hiatus. And FS1 will hardly be lacking for opportunities to bring in new viewers. It has 29 matches, including the U.S. opener against Australia on Monday night, all round-of-16 games, two quarterfinals and a semifinal.

The 1999 Women's World Cup final remains the highest-rated soccer game on U.S. English-language TV — better than any from the hugely successful men's World Cup last year that illustrated the sport's surging popularity here. Just one game from Brazil was in U.S. prime time; half of the matches will be this year, including all of the Americans' group-stage games, the semifinals and the final.

"June is a great opportunity to kind of take over the sports world," said Bill Wanger, Fox Sports' executive vice president of programming.

But for all those favorable conditions to produce record-breaking ratings, the U.S. needs to keep winning — ideally, not winning by very much.