By Daina Beth Solomon and Larry Fine
(Reuters) - If American soccer star Alex Morgan notches up a goal or two in Friday's U.S.-Sweden match at the Women's World Cup, she will not only score for Team USA, but also for the Fox network that took a big gamble on the event.
Fox Sports will air all 52 matches of the tournament from Canada, 16 of them on the Fox broadcast network, and a good performance for the strong American women's team should enhance ratings.
But even if the American women falter and ratings underperform, Fox is committed to a longer game: winning over women and Millennial fans on its way to becoming the leading soccer broadcaster in the United States, ahead of ESPN and NBC.
"Every indicator shows that the American public is interested in, watches and embraces our Women's World Cup team, but more importantly, the overall event and soccer as a TV sport," said Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports and now a sports business consultant.
"I'm feeling good about it and I'm sure Fox is feeling good about it."
For the opening U.S. game on Monday, 3.3 million people tuned in to cable channel Fox Sports 1 to witness the 3-1 win over Australia, triple the number of viewers who watched the team's opening game at the 2011 World Cup.
So far, average viewership has increased by 72 percent over 2011. David Nathanson, head of business operations for Fox Sports, said he is confident even higher numbers will follow.
Nathanson will not say what the television unit of Twenty-First Century Fox Inc has spent on the event, but investments include a production center built from scratch in Vancouver and $15 million in marketing.
"It's an opportunity for us to drive home the message that we are the home of the world's best soccer coverage in the United States," said Nathanson.
That might be a big statement if it were not for the fact that Fox secured a package deal with FIFA for broadcast rights for the next two Men's World Cups, along with the 2015 and 2019 Women's World Cups, for $425 million.
Advertisers and sponsors, keen on live sporting events, are jumping on board.
"It's patriotic and brings in a very strong and desirable audience for a lot of brands," said Brad Adgate, research director of Horizon Media. The World Cup has so far generated $4.4 million from advertising for 16 games since Saturday, with 121 brands placing commercials in 387 slots between Fox and Fox Sports, according to iSpot.tv, which tracks TV ads. Nationwide Insurance and Ford Motor Co lead ad spending. Ads are also proving popular, like the video released by team sponsor Nike Inc of top American players enduring a grueling training session to the driving beats of "American Woman."
The network and advertisers are hoping to build the soccer audience of the future: young people, even 7-year-old soccer players, and women, a key to growth for many American sports. "With the Women's World Cup, they're fighting a little bit of an uphill battle, because we haven't figured out how to market successfully women's sports," said Todd McFall, a sports economics professor at Wake Forest University.
Indeed, even diehard soccer fans believe Fox faces a big challenge. "It takes the right eye to sit and care to watch a ball being passed for 90 minutes like a chess match," said Amy Mann, 31, who played soccer at the University of Southern California.
"I have a sentimental spot for women's soccer...but my allegiance to watch it only happens during World Cup," she said.
(Additional reporting by Piya Sinha Roy in Los Angeles and Reuters TV; Editing by Mary Milliken and Lisa Shumaker)