Some 3.4 billion people — almost half of the world’s 7.6B population — is expected to watch the FIFA World Cup that starts Thursday, as the soccer tournament, which takes place this year in Russia, remains one of the world’s most popular media events.
Latin America is expected to have the largest number of viewers, according to research company GlobalWebIndex, followed by the Middle East and Africa, Asia Pacific and Europe. However, thanks to an embarrassing defeat against Trinidad & Tobago, the U.S. won’t be competing in the World Cup for the first time since 1986, a major blow to one of the largest TV markets in the world (albeit one hamstrung by time differences this time around). It’s thought that less than a quarter of the population in the U.S. will tune in to watch any games, and those may be largely expats and those cheering on the Mexican team.
To put the numbers into context, the 2014 FIFA World Cup, which was held in Brazil, was watched by 3.2B people, according to the soccer body, with more than 1B people tuning in to watch Germany narrowly beat Argentina in the final.
Deadline has broken down where the World Cup will be most popular, giving you a country-by-country guide to TV viewing (and a few thoughts on the country’s chances).
England fans remains some of the most ardent supporters of the World Cup, despite woeful performances in recent tournaments from the island’s brave lions. However, manager Gareth Southgate seems to have turned things around with a young team featuring stars such as Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson, which should be a boon for broadcasters. Public broadcaster BBC is sharing the rights to the tournament with ITV – the event is protected by “crown jewels” rules, meaning that it must air on free-to-air networks. Gary Lineker will be hosting BBC coverage, while ITV will have Jacqui Oatley alongside Mark Pougatch. Former Chelsea striker Didier Drogba, on the BBC, and ex-Manchester United hardman Patrice Evra, for ITV, are the surprise guests for the networks, which will be attempting to find viewers online through a slew of Instagram and YouTube videos as well as podcasts. The only controversy comes as the BBC and ITV will have to move popular soaps EastEnders, Emmerdale and Coronation Street across the schedules to accommodate sports fans.
France has had World Cup fever for several weeks in the run-up to kickoff — even my local boulangerie has stuffed its window with flags and jerseys alongside the meringues. And why not? This marks the 20th anniversary of Les Bleus winning the championship on home turf in 1998. Retrospectives of the matches have been playing non-stop on television and radio as excitement mounts for one of the strongest teams going into the tournament this year, despite last week’s woeful performance against the U.S. Many of the 1998 players are being recruited to comment and on June 12 will strap on their boots for Le Match Des Légendes.
TF1 will air a game with 21 members of the 1998 squad on one side (sans Didier Deschamps, who’ll already be in Russia managing the national team) against a group of veteran players. Leading commercial broadcaster TF1 and pay channel BeIn Sport both have local rights to the soccer; TF1 takes the 28 key matches, with upstart BeIn showing all 64. France and the rest of continental Europe are one hour behind Russia and two of the group stage games will air in the late afternoon on weekdays meaning work will come to a standstill. TF1’s biggest audience ever was for the France-Portugal semifinal in 2006 at more than 22 million viewers. BeIn will have essentially 24-hour coverage with six daily magazine programs recruiting commentators like 1998 French team members Marcel Desailly and Robert Pirès as well as outgoing Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger. For TF1, Bixente Lizarazu and Youri Djorkaeff will rep the 1998 squad. The network has magazine shows and daily roundups planned.
Security was at an all-time high during the 2016 Euro Cup, which the Hexagon hosted, particularly as a suicide bombing at the Stade de France in November 2015 had set off a night of fatal carnage in Paris. So-called secured fan zones where footie acolytes could watch the matches on giant screens were located in several towns and covered by broadcasters. But for the World Cup there is a loose restriction on giant screen screenings in public with the decision ultimately down to the municipalities. It remains unclear if the esplanade in front of Paris Hôtel de Ville will be a viewing hub as it was for the World Cup in 2014.
The hosts of the 2014 World Cup suffered a rather ignominious exit, losing 7-1 to eventual champs Germany in the semis. Coming into Russia, the Seleçao has a good shot to advance, although we won’t start hoping for a France-Brazil final just yet. The last World Cup’s opening game between Brazil and Croatia was seen by 42.9M people in the cradle of soccer. That year, HBO Latin America ran documentary Destino Brazil about players as they headed to the tournament. This year, HBO Latin America and HBO Europe are teaming on 10-part doc Destino Russia 2018 which will explore the personal accounts of players from both regions ahead of kickoff.
Brazil is believed to be the country with the largest number of broadcasters, totaling 16 across television and radio. Globo won the rights to 2018 and 2022 and then licensed for TV to Fox Sports and SporTV, while there are 13 radio networks as well as Globo’s online and mobile offerings.
Globo says it has prepared coverage comparable to the passion for football and the championship felt by its over 100 million daily viewers across its content platforms. Fifty-six matches will be live, with TV news shows and programs anchored from a studio in Moscow’s Red Square that will utilize augmented reality technologies. Nine other networks from around the world will also be based in Red Square. Globo’s international channels will further broadcast the program Conexao Russia (Russia Connection) to its 3M+ subscribers worldwide to show the essence of what it means to be a Brazilian fan. In all, Globo is planning 600 hours of content, has 400 staff working the event — half in Russia — and 23 news crews throughout the host cities.
Germany is always one of the favorites to win the tournament and with the likes of Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller joined by newcomer Timo Werner, they will be confident that they can become the first country to defend the World Cup since Brazil won the tournaments in 1958 and 1962 — this despite the departure of key players such as Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Miroslav Klose. The previous tournament set ratings records in Germany, with, for instance, 28M viewers – an 85% share – tuning in to see the team beat Algeria. They will be hoping for even better numbers this time around.
German free-to-air broadcasters ARD and ZDF have the rights to broadcast all 64 games from the tournament across TV and online, reportedly paying €200M for the privilege. However, the pair, through their sports rights agency SportA, sub-licensed the ultra-high definition rights to pay-TV broadcaster Sky Deutschland. The move will give the company the rights to show 25 matches, including the best match of each day as well as all of Germany’s games, in the new technology during the tournament. Meanwhile, OTT service DAZN, which is operated by sports media company Perform, has acquired the rights to show highlights of all 64 games, meaning that it’s not long before the new players step on the toes of the traditional broadcasters when it comes to the World Cup.
Despite being the host nation and kicking off the tournament with a relatively underwhelming game against Saudi Arabia, Russia is not a nation of football fans. While the country is pleased to be hosting, less than 1 in 10 Russians considers themselves to be a passionate fan with more than a third saying that they only watch occasionally and 36% suggesting they don’t follow at all, according to statistics from Ipsos Mori.
This was evidenced by local broadcasters’ reticence to pick up the rights to the tournament, which eventually went to Channel One, Rossiya, which is part of state-run media giant VGTRK and Match TV, owned by natural gas giant Gazprom, part of the 2Sport2 consortium, which paid $32M for the rights. This comes after Russia’s state-run TV channels refused to meet FIFA’s target price of $120M for the rights, which was more than three times what broadcasters paid last time around. The deal was only struck in December 2017, remarkably close to kickoff.
Mediaset Espana continues its tradition of hosting the biggest football events including the last two World Cups and Euros. The Brazil championship was watched by an average 5.57M viewers, which fell below 2010’s 6.35M. But that’s normal. Spain had one of the most exquisite squads ever assembled in 2010 when it won the championship, but in 2014 it faltered and exited the tournament in the group stage.
Things are hopefully looking up for La Roja this year. Fans will see all 64 matches spread across Mediaset’s free channels Telecinco and Desportes Cuatro as well as Be Mad. The trio will air more than 200 hours of live coverage with online platforms (mitele.es), apps, social networks and radio also getting in on the game for the biggest operation ever by a free-to-air broadcaster in the market, per local media.
The Russian city of Krasnodar will be the HQ for Telecinco and Deportes Cuatro beginning June 8. Mediaset España says it will be the only group that will have an exclusive set with views of the stadiums. In the three group stage face-offs played by Spain against Portugal, Iran and Morocco, the news crew will travel to Sochi, Kazan and Kaliningrad.
Televisa has long been home to the major soccer events in Mexico, but under new broadcasting legislation in 2014 it was told it would have to share premium rights in the future as a matter of national interest. This year, the World Cup is spread across Televisa, TV Azteca and Sky. According to Live Soccer TV, the matches will air on Las Estrellas, Canal 5, TDN, Azteca 7 and Azteca 13. They will play on digital properties televisadeportes.com and the Televisa Deportes app. Sky HD will also broadcast the entire tournament live and on its streaming service, Blue To Go. Sky is the only outlet with all 64 matches. Sky HD is also providing English-language coverage on TV in Mexico, but not via streaming. The timing for Mexico will be wonky given the eight-hour difference with Russia meaning most matches will air early in the morning.
China does not have a team at this year’s World Cup, but over 1B people in the massive market are nevertheless expected to tune in between June 14 and July 15. Alibaba-owned streaming platform Youku recently secured rights to all 64 matches, including live streams, on-demand videos and highlights.
The other digital player to enter a Cup deal with China Central Television this year is China Mobile’s Migu Video which has a similar pact to Youku. CCTV is the exclusive broadcaster of the tournament for 2018 and 2022 and this is the first time it has agreed to license live digital rights since the 2010 Cup in South Africa.
Football is very popular in China and interest is increasing. European players have been wooed by big paydays to the Chinese Super League (although a mega-deal to bring over Barcelona legend Andres Iniesta recently fell apart when he opted to go to Japan instead) and several UK and European clubs have Chinese investment. China also backs Mediapro which last month snatched the Ligue 1 rights away from Canal Plus in France.
In Argentina, Captain Lionel Messi’s squad will be seen on TV Publica, Viacom-owned Telefe, satellite broadcaster DirecTV and sports net TyC Sports. Portugal fans will keep tabs on Christian Ronaldo via public broadcaster RTP, premium cable outlet SporTV and SIC which has recently been chronicling the voyage of comedians João Manzarra and Salvador Martinha in road trip series A Caminho Da Russia (On the Way to Russia).
And what about Italy? Gli Azzurri were the 2006 champs but are sitting this one out for the first time since 1958. An avid soccer nation, folks for the first time will have access to all 64 matches live via Mediaset on its free networks and online, despite their dismal exit ahead of the tournament marking a sad end to Gianluigi Buffon’s Italy career. There’s also a special 24-hour channel offering extra content. Mediaset Premium is airing all the matches in HD and 4K. All TV programming will be available live on Mediaset’s online platform along with continuous updates. A free app will provide exclusive digital content.
Finally, Iceland may have a hard time breaking the record viewership it scored during Euro 2016 when 99.8% of the TV audience tuned in to see the side land a historic win against England. RUV is airing the World Cup this year.
An estimated 280M people around the world watched matches online or on mobile and football fans are only expected to go further down this route thanks to the growth of new technology for sports content. While YouTube, Twitter and Facebook will not officially allowed to broadcast live games, there will undoubtedly a rash of clips and footage from all of the games appearing online. This has encouraged youth football brand Copa90 to partner with Snapchat to deliver exclusive content across the tournament. The platform will deliver 45 daily editions in English, French, German, Spanish and Arabic across the global, except in the U.S.