How Fox Sports Is Marketing the World Cup to U.S. Viewers With No Home Team to Root For

Campaign focuses on epic rivalries, DNA—and Deadpool

Ryan Reynolds and David Beckham shot their FIFA World Cup campaign footage on the same day they filmed last month's Deadpool 2 promo. Fox Sports
Headshot of Jason Lynch

Fox Sports evp of marketing Robert Gottlieb had the perfect marketing campaign for his company’s first broadcast of the men’s FIFA World Cup in 2018. At least, until the U.S. men’s team failed to qualify for the tournament last October—depriving Fox Sports of its most valuable marketing asset.

“It’s seismic on one level because you know that there’s a large percentage of the audience that are going to show up just to watch the U.S. team. And then the hope is once they watch a U.S. game on a Tuesday morning, now they’re vested and are into the tournament,” said Gottlieb. “We know we lost a large chunk of that, and there’s no way we’re going to be able to market our way back to the U.S. team being in the tournament, and what that interest would cause.”

The lack of a U.S. team in the tournament is a big blow to Fox Sports, which spent more than $400 million in 2011 to outbid ESPN for the rights to the four FIFA World Cup tournaments from 2015 to 2022, including the men’s World Cup in 2018 and 2022 and the women’s World Cup in 2015 and 2019. (Telemundo outbid Univision for the Spanish-language rights.)

But as Fox Sports’ 2018 FIFA World Cup coverage kicks off Thursday—games will air on Fox and FS1—Gottlieb said his marketing strategy ultimately didn’t require as much of an overhaul as one might expect.

“Tactically and strategically, the U.S. was not going to be the lead component of our marketing campaign,” he said. “Unlike, say the Women’s World Cup in 2015, where it was all about the U.S. team.”

Had the U.S. team made the tournament, the campaign would have “talked more directly to ‘avids’ in their language. The U.S. team would have brought along a bunch of ‘casuals,’ so we could speak more directly to the core,” said Gottlieb. So their elimination meant “we have to talk a little bit more directly to that ‘casual’ now, and explain to him why he needs to care about [Cristiano] Ronaldo and [Lionel] Messi, and reframe this as the world’s greatest sporting event, that a sports fan can’t miss.”

To that end, the campaign, which launched in January during Fox’s NFC Championship Game, worked to create awareness of the World Cup as a global sporting event with a much different vibe than the Olympics.

“The Olympics is very much about the world uniting and this global moment,” said Gottlieb. “We wanted to bring a certain tone and a swagger to it. It’s not holding hands and let’s all get together and have a soda. It’s like, this is going to be a freaking party, man. This is going to be a raucous, good time. You want in on this.”

That was a central theme of Fox Sports’ “The World Becomes the FIFA World Cup” spots, which rolled out last month and played up the tournament as an epic faceoff where “men become gods” (Argentina’s Lionel Messi) and “allies become rivals” (Manchester United teammates Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, who are playing for England and France, respectively, during the tournament).

“This is the pinnacle sports event around the globe. So if you are a sports fan and you care about Steph [Curry] and LeBron [James] and you care about [Rafael] Nadal and the Masters, this is a sporting event that has to command your attention,” said Gottlieb. “These sporting icons—Ronaldo, Neymar, Messi— are as famous as any global superstar.”

The Wieden + Kennedy New York-created “The World Becomes the FIFA World Cup” campaign also included shorter spots playing up the Ronaldo/Messi rivalry and how “everything is not enough” for international superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, who has fame and fortune but still lacks a World Cup for Portugal.

In addition to the soccer superstars, the campaign also includes several appearances from soccer legend David Beckham alongside Ryan Reynolds, in character as Deadpool. Their footage was shot the same day as last month’s Deadpool 2 promo in which Reynolds apologizes to Beckham for the joke about Beckham’s voice in the first Deadpool film.

Fox Sports had reached out separately to Deadpool and Beckham about being involved in the campaign, not realizing that something was already in the works with the duo for its sibling movie studio.

“It was like the a-ha moment, where we all realized we were putting the same thing together. From there, it was just figuring out the logistics of how much of the day we get, versus what they get,” said Gottlieb. “They were really gracious in letting us join in on the stuff they had going with Beckham there.”

The campaign includes several integrations with other Fox networks and talent. Former soccer star Alexi Lalas, who is a studio analyst for the World Cup, participated in a MasterChef segment with Gordon Ramsay, which will air on June 20.

Ramsay also prepared World Cup-inspired brunch items and recipes for several World Cup countries (his menu for England features poppy seed ricotta pancakes with lemon curd and blueberries), which are on the Fox Sports website.

Lalas and World Cup studio host Kate Abdo are hosting a sports-themed Simpsons marathon tonight on FXX at 8 p.m. And National Geographic has been airing World Cup country “factoids” in the lower third of the screen, all the way to the start of the tournament.

Beyond its various World Cup promos and Fox integrations, Fox Sports partnered with DNA testing company 23andMe, encouraging fans to take a DNA test and see if they have a “heritage connection” to one of the World Cup teams, which Gottlieb hopes will help audiences find a team to root for given the U.S.’ tournament absence. “It’s been a pretty extensive campaign and it’s added to our marketing and media weight considerably,” he said.

Meanwhile, 360i put together a digital out-of-home World Cup campaign in major markets, with digital kiosks and billboards offering “virtually live” highlights of every game, leading up the World Cup final on July 15. With many World Cup games airing in the morning, “being able to talk to commuters as they’re going into work each morning, especially on the East Coast, is really important to our tactics,” said Gottlieb.

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.