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Women's World Cup ratings climb as U.S. team advances to finals

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Fox invested a lot of money to broadcast the men and women's World Cup tournaments through 2026, and it's paying off with record-setting viewership.

The 2015 women's World Cup ratings are hitting new highs on the Fox Broadcasting Network. Tuesday's U.S. semifinal win against Germany was the third most-watched women's soccer match of all time. The game was Fox's highest rated program since the season finale of "Empire" three months ago.

The U.S. team will now play in the July 5 championship match. The success of the U.S. team however, might not be the only factor drawing in more viewers.

The tournament takes place in Canada, which — just as Brazil's location did for the men's World Cup — allows U.S. viewers to watch the matches without having to figure out drastically different time zones. The tournament is also taking place as the U.S. is undergoing an upswing in appreciation for the sport, which appeals to a very diverse audience.

After ESPN aired the women's World Cup four years ago, Fox reportedly paid $425 million to televise the men's and women's tournaments through 2026. 

Mike Mulvihill, Fox's senior vice president for programming, research and content strategy, spoke with the Frame's John Horn about the United States' increasing interest in soccer. 

I know we’re about 3,000 miles away from where you are in New York, but I thought I heard you screaming when Carli Lloyd made her penalty kick. Was that actually you?

That was me and a couple hundred other Fox executives, I think.

Carli Lloyd of USA scoring her penalty goal against Germany (Photo by Stuart Franklin - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

So tell us a little bit about the numbers from the U.S. 2-0 defeat of Germany.

We had 8.4 million viewers for the semi-final match. The match peaked at 11.8 million viewers in the final half hour, which — for this time of year for any type of programming — is really extraordinary. It’s clearly going to be the number one show of the night among adults 18-49, which is kind of our bread-and-butter demographic. 

I believe that the Sunday final and the game last night will likely be the two most watched shows of the week in that demographic. So, couldn’t be more pleased with the results from last night and from throughout the tournament.

Are you able to figure out who actually is watching? Do you have demographic breakdowns or know where it’s playing strong regionally?

Yeah, we actually look at a wide variety of demographics. We look at every major market in every region of the country. A couple things that we’re noticing is that growth over the last tournament, which was in 2011, is being driven more by female demographics than by male demographics.

That male demographic — which typically powers sports viewing — is still very strong, but we’re actually seeing in every age category more growth among women than among men. Which is at the very least interesting, and maybe says something about the nature of this event and more people getting excited about women’s sports around the country.

It’s also interesting to look at some of the markets that are really popping for the women’s World Cup. I think soccer is sometimes thought of as being very much driven by the major markets on either coast, and yet the highest markets have been Kansas City, St. Louis, Austin, Cincinnati and Columbus. Really, among the strongest markets, only Washington is a major coastal market. So really I think we’re seeing more heartland interest than we’ve ever seen before.

So if the ratings are a little bit above projections that Fox had, who is turning out in larger numbers you anticipated?

Women across the board, I would say. Also older viewers. This is a sport that I think is very much identified with a younger graphic and we are, as you know, a very youth-obsessed business. But in this case I’m actually very encouraged to see us expanding the reach of the game beyond the millennial generation and see a lot of growth among Gen X and among Baby Boomers.

I think when you see those older demos start to catch up with the interest of the younger demo, it suggests a mainstreaming of the sport — that this is not just something that appeals to younger people on the coast, it is something that appeals to both genders and all demographics in every region of the country.

Megan Rapinoe of USA at the FIFA Women's World Cup match between USA and Germany (Photo by Stuart Franklin - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Is that reflective of Fox’s marketing? In other words, did you try to cast a very wide net and appeal to demographics that wouldn’t typically be thought of as core soccer audiences? Are those audiences now showing up?

What we did in our marketing was, we built around this idea that America has a score to settle. The men’s team was able to advance to the round of 16 last year, where they were eliminated by Belgium in an incredibly exciting match. Now a year later we have a chance with the women’s team to go further than the men’s team did last year.

So we really built our marketing around promoting that U.S. national team and I that has worked. Our U.S.A. matches are up 120% in viewership over where they were in 2011. The entire tournament is up 45%. [That overall] growth is nothing to turn your nose up at, but 120% growth for the U.S.A. matches I think is just extraordinary. I do think our marketing strategy has paid off a little bit there.

What does this mean for Fox and for women’s sports going forward? Do you see a potential upside for other sports, other coverage of soccer? There is a women’s professional league in the U.S. — what are your options going forward?

You know, it’s hard to say. I think certainly we’re very bullish in our outlook on soccer, both on the women’s side and on the men’s side. As the FIFA rights holder for the next several World Cup cycles, I think we stand to benefit tremendously from continued growth and interest in soccer across the board.

How does this impact interest in women’s sports beyond just the women’s World Cup going forward? I think it’s hard to predict. I not sure that it necessarily translates into interest in women’s professional soccer. You’d like to think that some stars are being created here and personalities are being established. Hopefully we’ll have the opportunity to showcase these players beyond just the next couple days. 

Lucas Shaw, entertainment reporter for Bloomberg News, also spoke with the Frame's John Horn to talk about the World Cup and the state of women's soccer.

What did Fox see looking back four years ago that convinced them the World Cup could be this successful on a broadcast network?

One of the things is that this year's women's World Cup is in Canada, which means the games are on at a more convenient time for people to watch. They're on at 4 or 7 p.m. on the east coast  — 1 and 4 p.m. on the west coast — which is much better than 7 or 8 in the morning.

Looking at it from a macro lens, it is the steady growth in popularity of soccer in the United States. I spoke with some Fox executives last week who actually credited ESPN. Ever since the 2014 men's World Cup, soccer ratings have been inching up and up and up. Whether it's for the Champions League or the Europa League, every major event has seen ratings increase in the U.S. It is a sport that is popular both among men and women. One of the great stories so far this year has been that the women's viewership of the women's World Cup is up more than 100 percent.

I guess one of the issues too is that the U.S. has been playing incredibly well in beating Germany. They beat the winner of two of the last three World Cups. They've been not quite an underdog, but a surprise of the tournament. How much of the Fox success is attributable to the U.S. team's performance?

A lot of it. Fox has wisely scheduled the U.S. games in the equivalent of prime time, at least on the east coast, and put as many of them as they could on the Fox broadcast network. 

Obviously, the World Cup has been very important for Fox because the network has not been doing very well in the ratings. What has Fox been doing to promote and market its World Cup coverage?

It's not so much what they've done to market the 2015 World Cup, but how they can use it to market everything else. As you say, the ratings at Fox have been challenged. The viewership is down 20 percent compared to last year and that is even including "Empire," which was probably the biggest hit of the [past] TV season.

So, Fox has been able to promote some its summer shows [and] some of its upcoming fall shows, like "Scream Queens." It can use a sport that is popular with anyone who might watch —kind of  the "casual viewer."

One of the things that Fox has done too is made a huge bet on the World Cup for basically the next 20 years. Also you cannot get the content anywhere else. You can't get highlights on ESPN. 

Fox has long built an audience based on sports and they've done a good job of keeping the relevant clips within the Fox network. I saw some postings on social media yesterday where people were frustrated because they couldn't see highlight clips on ESPN, they couldn't get it on Sports Center, they couldn't get it on

If you want to know what is going on in this World Cup you have to go to Fox, you have to go to Fox Sports 1, or That is particularly beneficial to the company when you have the U.S. making a run to the finals.

 United States after scoring a goal in the second half against Germany in the FIFA Women's World Cup 2015 in Montreal, Canada. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

Given how well the women are playing and how well the audience is turning out, is it a safe bet that by 2019, when the World Cup is in France, the women will get to play on grass like the men?

I sure hope so. Maybe they'll actually put the different teams in different hotels like they do for the men. There has been an undercurrent of sexism to this whole event that is unfortunate. Of all the problems that FIFA has you'd think that they'd get this one right.

Apparently not. Both the Germany and the U.S. teams ended up in the same hotel, which made for some awkward coffee shop encounters last night.

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