The 2018 FIFA World Cup is almost a fortnight old and breaking broadcast records. But traditional airers should still look nervously over their shoulders.
Over 3.4bn people are estimated to watch the tournament by the time its final is played in Moscow on July 15. England’s first-round victory over minnows Tunisia drew Britain’s largest TV audience of the year, while it was revealed that a staggering 99.6% of the Icelandic population tuned in to see their heroes hold Lionel Messi’s Argentina to a 1-1 draw.
FIFA, the game’s global governor, will reap over $3 billion in broadcasting revenue for the tournament. Yet the 21st edition of the world’s most watched sporting event is proving a turning point for the way people watch sport – and traditional broadcasters are predictably nervous.
Live digital streaming is steaming up to speed with its TV counterpart. The 2010 World Cup in South Africa saw a high of 1.5m peak concurrent global viewers. That figure rose to 3.2m for 2014’s edition in Brazil. This year many more millions will watch their sides battle in Russia.
Televisions will narrowly outstrip smartphones as the preferred devices on which to view the 2018 World Cup (39% to 36%). The evolution of handsets will surely tip the scales for the 2022 World Cup, to be played in Qatar. It will be a benchmark for a global video live-streaming industry set to reach $70bn in value by 2021.
According to a study by the Interactive Advertising Bureau, almost as many people planned to watch this year’s World Cup via live-stream video as via traditional broadcasts. In a handful of territories, including the US, Russia and China, digital streaming beat TV.
The latter nation is of intense interest for industry insiders. This year, despite the nation’s failure to qualify, China paid between $300m and $400m to secure the rights for 2018 and 2022. CCTV, China’s largest state broadcaster, sold digital rights to Migu, owned by China Mobile, and Alibaba-owned YouKu, for undisclosed fees.
Fox Sports paid $400m to usurp ESPN and ABC, both Walt Disney Co. subsidiaries, as the American broadcaster of 2018 and 2022. It has made online viewing a fulcrum of its coverage, offering behind-the-scenes, multi-cam and VR feeds among other features.
One of the strongest areas for digital streaming is the Middle East, where traditional broadcasters battle a huge number of roadblocks including relatively underdeveloped testing and measurement sectors, and near-ubiquitous piracy.
Yet it is there, too, where the largest streaming controversy has occurred: NBCUniversal has accused Saudi platform BeoutQ of airing matches illegally, a charge that has prompted soccer governing bodies UEFA and FIFA to consider action. The coverage has grown from the ongoing trade ban between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which has resulted in fans in the former being unable to watch content from Qatari broadcaster BeIN. That has left Saudi with no official coverage of the World Cup – despite its national team having qualified for the first time since 2006.
Technical issues have forced broadcasters elsewhere to reimburse fans for costly streaming packages. And piracy remains a huge problem: Google received takedown requests for 68 URLs deemed by FIFA to be streaming matches illegally, but has allowed 46 to remain in search results.
But make no mistake: streaming will soon overtake traditional TV as the world’s preferred sports viewing platform. Traditional telly has been given a yellow card in Russia. By Qatar 2022, it may already get a red.