Here’s a question for all of you out there: What is the most widely-viewed and followed sporting event in the world?
Now, this question obviously won’t have the same effect today as it would, say, six months ago. I’m guessing anyone who reads this blog is a pretty active follower of sports, and probably knows that the 2010 FIFA World Cup gets underway this Friday. And, consequently, since I’m addressing it now (and not six months in the past), it’s pretty easy to figure out that the answer to this question is, indeed, the World Cup.
Regardless, this answer would surprise a lot of casual sports fans in America. I’m guessing that if I were to ask this question, even today – three days before the opening match – most Americans would probably give “the Olympics” as their answer. And in America, that may very well be true. The truth is, as any American knows, that soccer has not been able to establish a foothold (pun intended) in the American sports culture. Anybody remember that the World Cup was on U.S. soil in 1994? That was a new nugget of information for me, and I consider myself a pretty hardcore sports fan (granted, I was nine years old, but still.) Does anybody know who the best MLS team is? I don’t, and I really don’t care to know, to be brutally honest. How did the whole David Beckham thing work out again? With regards to the failure of soccer in the United States, I could go on and on and on.
But as far as the rest of the world is concerned, soccer (or should I say futbol) is king, and the World Cup is the king’s treasure. There is nothing that unites the rest of the world quite like the game of soccer, and that very notion is part of the reason the World Cup is so much fun to watch. The effect of the World Cup is quite like that of the Olympics – professional rivalries are buried for a short time (in this case, one month) and the outpouring of national pride is more contagious than the European debt crisis. For the rest of the world, this is the once-every-four-years event that is circled on the calendar, not the Olympics. Every one of these games for a participating country is a Super Bowl.
Now, by this point, some of you could probably accuse me of exaggerating to an extent. With that in mind, here are some stats to back all of this up:
-The cumulative audience of the 2006 World Cup, played on German soil, was estimated to have been 26.29 billion viewers. The final match alone, won by Italy over France, was estimated to have 715.1 million viewers. That’s nearly two and a half times the entire population of the United States.
-By comparison, an estimated 4.7 billion cumulative viewers were thought to have turned into the 2008 Summer Olympics. Even if you double that to make the air time similar, that’s still nearly 17 million fewer viewers. And these were considered to be a very successful Olympics from a ratings perspective. For further comparison, the recent 2010 Winter Olympics drew 3.0 billion cumulative viewers in a best-case estimate.
-ESPN, who has the rights to the 2010 and 2014 World Cup, shelled out $100 million for the rights to show the event. That’s $50 million a year, and nearly $2 million a day to broadcast the Cup.
-World Cup sponsor, FIFA, raised 1.9 billion euros in marketing revenue and 700 million euros from sponsorship in the 2006 World Cup.
As these stats show, the World Cup is 1.) a huge deal to the world population as a whole and 2.) a cash cow (a direct result of it being a huge deal.) ESPN, as shown, is investing a huge sum into the World Cup. In addition to the $100 million paid out for broadcast rights, the network has also made huge commitments to ensure that their coverage is top-notch: the network, among other things, has staffed 300 people at what has been called a “massive compound” in Johannesburg, South Africa (the sight of the 2010 Cup) and plans to air more than 230 hours of live programming.
Worldwide ratings are going to be massive, there’s no question about it. Projecting American television ratings, however, isn’t quite as straight-forward. Already, we’ve documented the difficulties of soccer in its effort to become a “mainstream sport” in America. That’s not going to change overnight. ESPN has admittedly done their part in hyping the hell out of this, which theoretically should result in more interest from the casual fan. It is more than likely, however, that U.S. television rating success or failure will depend squarely on the fate of the U.S. squad.
It’s no secret: Americans are bandwagoners. You don’t have to look back any more than four months for a reminder of that. Remember the U.S. hockey team? Although hockey is making a bit of a comeback, America still, by and large, doesn’t care about it. But they had a team they could get behind, and the end result was a massive 27 million viewers for the final versus Canada – the highest for a hockey game since the “Miracle on Ice” in 1980. I’ll fully admit that I was a bandwagoner there too. I envision a similar situation evolving if the U.S. soccer team is successful in the World Cup. Given their draw, it’s hard to envision them not making it to the knockout round, which should at least stimulate some level of interest among the casual fan, and some level of success as it pertains to U.S. television ratings.
Who knows? A deep U.S. run in the World Cup could also give soccer the kick-start (once again, pun intended) that it needs to become a mainstream sport in the U.S.A. Regardless if that happens or not, soccer is truly the world’s sport, and the World Cup is the world’s biggest sporting event. Enjoy it. I know I will.