Is Critical Coverage Hurting World Cup Ratings?
Controversy has swirled around this year’s soccer World Cup in Qatar. From accusations of bribery and fraud in granting the tournament to the tiny, wealthy Mid-East nation, to criticism of Qatar’s persecution of its LGBTQ+ community and its treatment of migrant workers
But, judging by viewership figures after the first week of matches, the critical coverage hasn’t hurt the ratings much.
In the U.S., broadcasters Fox Sports and Telemundo, who are carrying the tournament in English and Spanish, respectively, have got off to a strong start. Sunday’s opening match between hosts Qatar and Ecuador was watched live by an average of around 7 million people across both networks. An average of 4 million tuned in to Spanish-language broadcasts on Telemundo, Peacock and Telemundo Deportes’ digital platforms, a 164 percent increase on the 2018 World Cup opener between Russia and Saudi Arabia. English-language viewership on Fox was up 78 percent on the 2018, with a peak of 3.5 million catching the match, compared to 1.7 million who watched the opening game in 2018.
But things really took off when the United States played Monday. Nearly 12 million viewers on Fox and Telemundo caught the 1-1 draw with Wales, with an average of 8.3 million watching on Fox across its broadcast and digital platforms and 3.4 million on the Spanish-language service.
Tuesday’s Mexico v. Poland match drew an average of 4.6 million viewers for Telemundo and Peacock across all platforms.
Fox has been careful to avoid any criticism of host nation Qatar, with on-air hosts ignoring any and all controversial topics. Fox has a sponsorship agreement with sponsorship agreement with Qatar Airways and several Visit Qatar tourism spots have run during the channel’s World Cup coverage, but Fox has denied its sponsorship deals are influencing its coverage.
North of the border, Canada’s opening match against Belgium drew an average 3.7 million viewers on sports channel TSN, the main CTV network and the French-language RDS channel.
TSN-parent Bell Media says that audience made the game the most-watched World Cup group stage match on record, citing overnight data from Numeris (Canada’s Nielsen). Last time Canada appeared in World Cup was in 1988. The opener was the second-most-watched sports broadcast of the year in Canada, behind only Super Bowl LVI.
Overall, the match reached 8.9 million viewers, or around one-in-four Canadians watching some or all of the live broadcast, which ended with a 1-0 victory for Belgium.
In Britain, the BBC has taken a stronger stance on issues in Qatar, shifting coverage of Sunday’s opening ceremonies off its main channel in favour of a human rights message presented by host Gary Lineker.
But that position hasn’t appeared to dampen the British appetite for World Cup soccer. A peak of 8 million tuned into the BBC to watch England hammer Iran 6-2 in its first match of the competition on Monday. While significantly down on the ratings for team’s opening game against Tunisia at the 2018 World Cup in Russia — which peaked at 18.6 million — it should be noted that that game was played in the evening, while the Iran match was at the broadcast well outside primetime at 1 pm in the U.K.. The BBC said a further 8 million people streamed Monday’s match on iPlayer.
With a primetime slot of 7 p.m. on Friday and up against their centuries-old foe, England’s match against the U.S. should prove be a much bigger draw, although the overall figure could be unknown due to large numbers expected to watch in pubs.
Meanwhile, Wales, playing in a World Cup for the first time since 1958, beat their local rivals in terms of audience, with a peak of around 13 million watching their dogged 1-1 clash with the U.S. on ITV (a number no doubt aided by the 7 p.m. kick off time).
When England and Wales finally meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday Nov 29, the evening slot and the fact the two neighbours have never played each other in a World Cup before should make for a ratings bonanza for the BBC.
In Germany, however, where official World Cup broadcasters ARD and ZDF have reported extensively on human rights abuses in Qatar and on calls to boycott the tournament, viewership so far has been sharply down on previous World Cups.
The German team’s surprise 1-2 defeat to Japan on Wednesday drew just 9.2 million viewers on ARD, although the early kick-off time —2 PM in Germany —may have also played a role. The audience was a fraction of the nearly 26 million that watched Germany’s opening match of the 2018 World Cup in Russia (which also the Mannschaft go down in defeat, 0-1, to Mexico).
Sunday’s opening match, which hosts Qatar lost 0-2 to Ecuador, drew just 6.2 million German viewers on ZDF. To compare: more than 10 million Germans watched the Russia vs. Saudia Arabia opening match in World Cup 2018.
In the team photo ahead of the match, Germany’s players covered their mouths in a silent protest against soccer governing body FIFA, which had threatened to sanction players if they wore a rainbow-colored “OneLove” armband as part of campaign to raise awareness about LGBTQ+ rights. Consensual relations between members of the same sex are illegal in Qatar. FIFA claims the armband violates its ban on “political symbols.”
“Even without the armband, our position stands,” read the official tweet from the German Soccer Association (DFB), with a picture of the players covering their mouths. “We wanted to set an example for values that we live in the national team: diversity and mutual respect. To raise our voices together with other nations. This is not about a political message: human rights are non-negotiable.”
Wir wollten mit unserer Kapitänsbinde ein Zeichen setzen für Werte, die wir in der Nationalmannschaft leben: Vielfalt und gegenseitiger Respekt. Gemeinsam mit anderen Nationen laut sein. Es geht dabei nicht um eine politische Botschaft: Menschenrechte sind nicht verhandelbar. 1/2 pic.twitter.com/v9ngfv0ShW
— DFB-Team (@DFB_Team) November 23, 2022
While German players didn’t don the OneLove armband, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser proudly wore hers as she watched the match, sitting next to FIFA President Gianni Infantino.
The OneLove controversy has already cost Germany: one of the national team’s sponsors, the supermarket chain Rewe, cancelled their deal with the German Soccer Association after the team bowed to FIFA’s demands to drop the armband.
“We stand for diversity and soccer is also diverse,” said Rewe boss Lionel Souque, in a statement. “FIFA’s scandalous behavior is for me, as a CEO of a diverse company and also a soccer fan, completely unacceptable.”
After Germany’s loss to Japan, some in the local media blamed the debate around the OneLove armband and the team’s pre-game protest.
“There was too much drama in the build-up, too many issues that were more important than football, much like four years ago [when Germany went out in the first round], opined former Germany captain and 1990 World Cup champion Lothar Matthäus in the tabloid Bild. “That sort of thing disturbs your concentration, it distracts – and thus means you may lack the crucial five or 10 per cent.”
There was little mention of protests or controversy on Japanese public broadcaster NHK, which scored an impressive 40.6 percent share of the Tokyo market for its coverage of the Germany-Japan match, despite the late 10 p.m. kickoff for Japan. Millions more caught the game on streaming platform Abema, with peak viewership topping a record 10 million on Wednesday, according to parent company CyberAgent Inc.
There were also no signs of protest as reining World Cup champions France took the field for their opening match Tuesday against Australia. Les Bleus also had no problem drawing a home crowd. According to figures from ratings group Médiamétrie, 12.53 million locals tuned in to national network TF1 to watch the French team batter Australia 4-1, an audience on par with the 12.59 million that watched France’s opening game, also against Australia, in Russia 2018.