The 2022 World Cup overcomes obstacles to score a ratings hit

Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates with the trophy in front of fans after winning the World Cup final.
Argentina’s Lionel Messi celebrates with the trophy in front of fans after winning the World Cup final soccer match between Argentina and France in Lusail, Qatar, on Dec. 18.
(Martin Meissner / Associated Press)

Argentina’s nail-biting penalty shot victory over France to win the 2022 World Cup on Sunday drew an average of close to 26 million viewers, including a record-setting English language audience for Fox that capped a better than expected ratings performance for the tournament.

The soccer match from Lusail, Qatar, that featured the sport’s two biggest global stars, Argentina’s Lionel Messi and France’s Kylian Mbappé, pulled an average of 16.8 million viewers on Fox. The figure from Nielsen is up 47% over the 2018 World Cup final between France and Croatia.

The total includes fans who streamed the game on internet platforms. An additional 9 million viewers watched the Spanish language telecast on Telemundo and parent NBCUniversal’s streaming service Peacock, an increase of 65% over 2018.


The strong performance is likely to boost an expected robust market when the World Cup’s governing body, FIFA, sells the TV rights for the 2030 tournament. ESPN Chairman Jimmy Pitaro has already said the Walt Disney Co. unit will likely make a play for the event for its TV networks and streaming app ESPN+.

Tech players Apple and Amazon — which exclusively streams “NFL Thursday Night Football” — are likely to bid as well, as the companies are getting more aggressive in pursuing sports media rights.

“Messi and Mbappe have dominated sports coverage over the past several days, and while one or both may not be playing in the 2030 World Cup, all of this growing interest and improved ratings performance should lead to a near-doubling of U.S. World Cup rights fees for 2030 and beyond,” said Lee Burke, president of LHB Sports, Entertainment & Media.

The ratings for Sunday’s final were especially impressive as the game had a morning start time in the U.S.

Sports TV executives were jittery over the scheduling of the 2022 World Cup in the late fall due to the dangerously hot weather in Qatar. Staging the tournament in the Middle East for the first time made it unknown territory for the two networksk that reportedly paid a total of $1 billion for the broadcast rights for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments.

After 36 seasons calling games for ABC and NBC, Michaels will be the voice of experience for the tech giant’s exclusive weekly game.

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Mike Mulvihill, executive vice president and head of strategy and analytics for Fox Sports, acknowledged the concerns, but said he believes the network ultimately benefited from promoting the World Cup in its highly rated NFL and college football games during the fall.


Another factor that lifted the ratings was having the U.S. team compete in the round of 16. The team failed to qualify in 2014.

The U.S. team’s games — a tie against England and a loss to the Netherlands — likely brought American fans into the tournament who stuck around to watch more. The average Fox audience for the rounds after the U.S. elimination was around 7 million viewers, better than many regular season college football games.

“The relief to us was the U.S. formally qualified for the tournament,” Mulvihill said. “That’s what gave us confidence that it was going to be up meaningfully over 2018. In the end, the growth for the rounds after the U.S. was knocked out really exceeded what we expected.”

Overall, Fox averaged 3.5 million viewers across 64 matches, an increase over the 2.7 million who watched in 2018 when the tournament was held in Russia. The audience for NBCUniversal’s Telemundo, Universo and Peacock averaged 2.58 million, up 14% from 2018.

Soccer is especially appealing as a live TV property due to its upscale audience. Mulvihill said the median household income for Fox’s World Cup audience is $115,000, well above that for other major team sports.

“The U.S, is the only country in the world, at least among the English-speaking population, where soccer is the sport of the elite,” Mulvihill said.


Fox and Telemundo were awarded the rights to the 2026 World Cup, to be held in North America — including games in Los Angeles and New York— at a modest increase over what it paid for 2022, partly in response to concerns that this year’s event was scheduled out of season.