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With U.S. on the sidelines, local businesses struggle to whip up World Cup fever

TAMPA — One hundred U.S. Men’s Soccer team jerseys seemed like a safe bet in October when Ariel Martinez was ordering for his Best Buy Soccer and Lacrosse store.

But then the U.S. lost to soccer minnow Trinidad and Tobago in its final qualifying game for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Three months after the jerseys arrived at his Gunn Highway store, all but 15 remain unsold.

"When they lost, we all looked at each other and said, ‘Oh no,’ ’’ Martinez said.

The world’s most-watched sporting event kicks off in Russia on Thursday when the host nation takes on Saudi Arabia. The month-long tournament is normally a boost for some businesses as patriotic fans snap up national team jerseys and pack bars to catch games.

Local soccer strongholds like MacDinton’s Irish Pub are still gearing up but some business owners worry that the absence of the U.S. team and a nine-hour time zone difference with Russia will dim interest this year.

The World Cup is only played every four years, limiting the chance for businesses to cash in. At least they have 2026 to look forward to with the announcement Wednesday that North America — the United States, Mexico and Canada — will host the event then.

Martinez, who has worked in soccer retail since 1998, still expects a sales bump this year. His store is almost out of national jerseys from countries that made it to the World Cup, like Colombia and Peru.

But it won’t be the 25 percent increase he’s seen for past tournaments, he said.

"That craze you see every four years, fans filling bars, I don’t think that will be there as much as in past World Cups," Martinez said.

MacDinton’s hopes he’s wrong.

The Irish-themed bar with locations in Soho and St. Petersburg bills itself as the home of soccer. As it has done for previous tournaments, it plans to screen almost every game.

That will mean opening as early as 8 a.m., when it will sell breakfast but not alcohol, said Seth Kingsbury, a manager at the Soho bar.

Even with the United States absent, he expects that expatriates from Great Britain and Central and South American countries will gather to watch games together.

"Obviously having the U.S. in the running would be better for us, but we still have a loyal soccer following and finals will be busy regardless," Kingsbury said.

The bar will show games on televisions and a large projection screen. But early start times mean it won’t be able to use an outdoor projection screen that would struggle to compete with daylight.

La Pequeña Colombia on Armenia Avenue is planning a breakfast buffet for fans who turn up early to watch games. Watch parties are also expected at GameTime in Ybor City and Yeomans, a British pub in downtown Tampa.

Concern about the level of interest in this World Cup spreads beyond Tampa Bay.

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Merchandise sales across the United States are unlikely to match those of previous tournaments and there may be fewer and smaller watch parties, meaning less of a boost for bars and restaurants, said Rick French, chairman and chief executive of French West Vaughan, the second largest sports marketing practice in the nation.

"It isn’t just fans who are disappointed," French said. "There are a lot of businesses that would have benefited from the team qualifying that won’t see that same level of lift."

A decline in television viewers also is predicted.

The 2014 World Cup in Brazil, when games aired in the afternoon and early evening, drew record U.S. viewership. An estimated 24.7 million people watched the U.S. game with Portugal and U.S. games accounted for almost 20 percent of ESPN’s total viewers.

The Fox network paid more than $400 million for the U.S. TV rights for this year’s event and the 2022 tournament. Fox insists viewers still will tune in to see world stars like Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Argentina’s Lionel Messi.

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In addition to its two sports channels, Fox will broadcast more games on network television than during the past four tournaments combined.

The network has projected that the absence of the U.S. team will cost it about $20 million in advertising revenue, according to a Bloomberg report.

Games will also be shown on Telemundo. The Comcast-owned network paid $600 million for the Spanish-language rights for the next two tournaments.

"Viewership will be down," said Stefan Szymanski, co-author of Soccernomics and a University of Michigan professor who studies sports economics, "but I don’t think it’s going to be catastrophic."

Contact Christopher O’Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

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