Expanded World Cup in 2026 'will lift global audience by a quarter'
The viewing audience for the 2026 Fifa World Cup is in line to be 24 per cent higher than for the last tournament following the decision to increase the number of teams involved from 32 to 48, according to a new study.
A rise in the number of matches, from 64 to 80, will more than offset the impact of factors such as a dilution in quality, viewer fatigue and dead rubbers in the group stage, it is claimed, while the increased possibility of sleeping giant China qualifying has also lifted the projection.
Futures Sport + Entertainment, the media analytics and brand optimisation agency owned by advertising giant Interpublic, is basing its calculations on the 2026 World Cup taking place in the Americas and adopting the proposed first-round format of 16 groups of three teams, with four staggered matches each day, penalties in the event of draws, and two teams qualifying for the knockout stages.
The 2014 World Cup held in Brazil had a global in-home television audience of 3.2 billion, and 1.013 billion people watched the final between Germany and Argentina in-home or out-of-home according to Fifa.
However, the federation does not want to be seen to be standing still and, last month, its council voted in favour of the expansion proposal, which, according to Fifa forecasts, will generate $6.5 billion in revenue, up from the projected $5.5 billion for the next 32-team tournament in Russia in 2018.
It is estimated that TV rights revenues would rise from a projected $3.1 billion in 2018 to $3.6 billion in 2026, in part because of the increase in the number of qualifiers.
USA, possibly in combination with Canada and/or Mexico, is the favourite to host the 2026 World Cup and Future claims that, even though the time zone is not a favourable one for Asia, the 16 extra matches will drive a 27-per-cent increase in global viewership.
A further 9-per-cent rise is anticipated from the fact there will be no simultaneous kick-offs (at present the final two matches in each group are played concurrently).
These gains are offset by a dilution in quality (-14 per cent), viewer fatigue (-5 per cent) and dead rubbers (-3 per cent).
However, it is estimated that the growth in audience as a result of the restructuring of the World Cup alone will be in the order of 15 per cent.
Simon Wardle, the chief strategy officer at Future’s sister agency Octagon, said: “Adding an extra kick-off time will allow Fifa to schedule games for time-zone challenged countries which help drive increased broadcast rights, which is their #1 revenue source. Furthermore, modelling viewership on a market-by-market basis will enable Fifa to maximise broadcast revenue renewals in all markets except the US and Canada where deals currently extend through 2026.”
Futures has considered several variable factors to come to its final forecast of a 24-per-cent increase in viewership at the World Cup
It is claimed that, subject to their identities, the presence of 15 extra countries at the World Cup, stands to increase the number of viewers by 2 per cent, and that if the other one is China, there will be a further 3-per-cent rise.
Fifa has yet to confirm the allocation of the additional places though it is thought that continents outside the most established soccer markets of Europe and South America will be the major beneficiaries.
Such is the potential impact of China that it is estimated that if the TV popularity of soccer in the country grows by 2 percentage points by 2026, and applying this uplift only to stages in which China is still competing (assuming it goes out in the group stage), then the aggregate viewership would go up by 3 per cent.
Futures also anticipates a 1-per-cent increase in aggregated viewership from the two group matches in which China competes – the so-called ‘home nation uplift’ – after bringing domestic viewership in line with that of other markets with a similar soccer pedigree.
China have only qualified for the World Cup on one occasion, back in 2002, and are currently placed a lowly 86th in the Fifa rankings, but the state, its top clubs and media companies are investing heavily in soccer and this, combined with the increase in the number of qualifiers for 2026, suggest it is likely to make a bigger mark in future.
Wardle said: “All eyes are on China now. Their massive investment in football, coupled with the change in format, will greatly increase the probability that China qualifies. And that would have the single biggest impact on projected global viewership.”
Concacaf weighs up options Concacaf, the governing body for North and Central America and the Caribbean, will proceed with discussions on a joint bid for the 2026 World Cup after Fifa president Gianni Infantino said yesterday that the international federation would welcome applications from groups of three or four countries in light of the expanded format.
Concacaf president Victor Montagliani has already suggested that matches could be played in USA, Canada and Mexico in nine years’ time, and reiterated his support for the proposal last night.
He told Reuters: "Especially with 48 teams and the increased infrastructure that requires, not so much from a stadium standpoint but training facilities, hotels and all the other things, having the opportunity with three or more countries that are geographically close, it would be reasonable.
"Probably in short order, here in Concacaf, we will sit at a table and see how we are going to move forward."
Nor would the confederation head rule out group matches in Central American and Caribbean countries, saying: "You have to look at the economics as well, weigh in the cost-benefit, but I think the possibilities are endless, to be honest with you, when you have that many games. You can't close the door on any opportunities."
The World Cup looks likely to return to the Concacaf region for the first time since USA in 1994 after Fifa ruled Europe and Asia out of bidding given that the next two tournaments will be held in those continents, in Russia in 2018 and in Qatar in 2022.
However, US Soccer president Sunil Gulati has yet to confirm whether USA will bid, either alone or in partnership with Canada and Mexico, and doubts have recently been raised over its prospects as a result of the controversial policies of new US president Donald Trump.
These include a proposal for a large border wall between USA and Mexico to deter illegal immigration.
However, Montagliani does not believe this will have a negative impact on any bid from the Concacaf region, saying: "Notwithstanding some of the politics that is occurring in this part of the world, Trump has been pretty consistent in his support of global events and sport throughout his career as a businessman. I am not sure I would see that necessarily changing now that he is a president.
"It is important, if we are going to do something like this, that we get it right from a football and administration end before we start worrying about anything above that. But I am also confident that a World Cup, the only thing of its kind would, no pun intended, trump politics."