By Ridge Mahoney
After the banners and flags and scarves have departed and the discarded wrappers and cups have been swept up, attention will shift from the scoreboard at Wembley Stadium and to another important set of numbers: the television ratings.
FOX Sports is telecasting the Champions League final on its main channel for the fourth straight year. To more casual fans, a showdown of bitter Bundesliga rivals Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund isn’t not a glamorous matchup: No Manchester United, no Lionel Messi and Barcelona, no Real Madrid. Also absent is the defending champion, Chelsea, which a year ago beat Bayern Munich on penalty kicks in Bayern’s home stadium, the Allianz Arena.
Will the allure of Wembley nudge the ratings up a notch? Has coverage of Dortmund’s flamboyant coach Jurgen Klopp, who played a club-record 325 second division games for Mainz before leading that small club into the Bundelsiga, given the show a protagonist? Do fans who know that Bayern stumbled in two of the last three finals want to see if the third time is a charm?
The 2012 final drew a national rating of 1.1 with a 3 share. The first figure refers to the number of households, the second number is the percentage of televisions in use that were tuned to the game. The bottom line is an average audience of 2 million, according to figures compiled by Nielsen Media Research.
Those numbers did represent increases from the 2010 final that matched Bayern with Inter Milan, for which the rating was 1.0 and the audience 1.6 million. But it fell well short of a sexier matchup two years ago.
FOX hit its highest Champions League final rating in 2011. Driven by the heavyweight presences of Barcelona and Manchester United, the match generated figures of 1.4 and 4, which translates to an audience of 2.6 million viewers.
Executives at FOX as well as the other networks that televise soccer will be watching the ratings closely. Even before it secured rights to FIFA events that include the 2018 and 2022 World Cup competitions, FOX had begun airing Champions League finals on the main channel rather than FOX Soccer. Its much-ballyhooed move of Gus Johnson into the play-by-play chair for Champions League and Premier League games is a brazen attempt to entice viewers of other sports as well as apply a “big-time” sheen to its soccer properties.
The question for this year’s final will be whether extensive preview coverage of a major event translates into a higher American audience, or a less-glittering matchup lacking the sport’s biggest names will draw numbers similar to last year’s. Premier League and La Liga matches are carried weekly on American sports networks, and thus American audiences are regularly exposed to their teams and players, but since GolTV has been replaced by beIN Sport on many systems in the past six months, German soccer gets much less play than it used to. Yet both German clubs ratcheted up their street cred by slamming the Spanish giants in the semifinals and for the past few days the streets of London have been awash with fans in the red and white of Bayern and yellow and black of Borussia Dortumund.
FOX’s first World Cup is five years away, yet it starts up with FIFA events in 2015 that include the Women’s World Cup in Canada and its U.S.-friendly time zones. The $425 million it paid for English-language TV and radio rights is peanuts to other major sports properties, but it’s a lot of money for soccer.
Promos for the final have been running regularly on FOX as well as on Fox Soccer. This year’s final is a real test of the event’s appeal, since it doesn’t have a lot of star power though it has many other elements essential for a classic encounter: superb setting, colorful characters, prestigious prize at stake, and decades of back story.
Once the final whistle blows and the scoreboard goes dark, the crunching of very important numbers shall begin.