The 2018 FIFA World Cup through the Lens of OTT

Digital Landscape

During the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, soccer fans have the ability to watch matches in more ways than ever before. The growth of the OTT industry has allowed content like the World Cup to be streamed in ways that were previously unavailable to consumers. Today, soccer fans have the power to choose how and when they want to watch the largest soccer tournament in the world on any connected device, all thanks to streaming. With World Cup fans rooting for their favorite teams from around the world, and matches being watched across multiple time zones , the ability to stream matches on multiple devices such as mobile and tablets has been a game changer, greatly increasing viewership.

OTT’s Major Players

To understand how the role of OTT is shaping up in the 2018 World Cup, let’s take a look at how OTT providers have strategically approached this year’s tournament. In countries where soccer is a popular sport, like Argentina or France, the broadcasting rights to the World Cup are usually awarded to a public broadcaster. Many of these public broadcasters that were awarded rights to the 2018 World Cup did not have an OTT service in place, but realized that it would be integral to their delivery strategy, due to the sheer volume of consumers who prefer to watch on devices other than TV. In Argentina, their Federal System of Public Media and Content developed an OTT service for the World Cup called Contar.[1] In France, three public broadcasters who share rights to the World Cup banded together to create an OTT service called French World Cup Fans.[2] Both OTT services were created solely for the purpose of delivering the World Cup to fans, but they will continue to stream more sports and general TV content once the World Cup concludes.

In countries where soccer is not as popular, TV rights are usually awarded to privately-owned broadcasters who commonly bid on them. However, much like Argentina and France, it is still the case that many of these broadcasters did not have an OTT service in place prior to the World Cup. With the understanding that an OTT service could attract a larger audience from all over the world, networks like TSN in Canada,[3] and Sony Pictures India[4] have taken it upon themselves to create services to deliver the 2018 World Cup over-the-top. Domestically, World Cup fans can stream matches on Fox Sports Go, Fox Sports’ OTT service as long as they have a cable provider for authentication. Other ways to watch the World Cup through the internet include a subscription to an OTT service like Youtube TV or Sling TV. The magnitude of the World Cup and its popularity has been demonstrated by a focus by global broadcasters on making sure that content can be delivered worldwide, so that they match the consumer demands of today.

How Does the World Cup Stack Up to Other Popular OTT Events?

Sports’ dramatic shift to OTT streaming isn’t limited only to the World Cup. As a matter of fact, there are a lot of other major sporting events that have made a splash in the world of streaming, including the Super Bowl, the Olympic Games, and more. But how do their streaming ratings compare to the World Cup? Let’s take the Super Bowl. While it is without a doubt a very popular yearly event that generates about 111.3 million viewers per year, it does not compare to the FIFA World Cup Final which generates an average of one billion viewers.[5] Diving into the OTT streaming statistics for both events presents some eye opening revelations as well. 2 million viewers tuned into Super Bowl LII through NBC’s OTT app, the official streaming website for the Super Bowl.[6] These numbers pale in comparison to the World Cup, where approximately 3.3 million British viewers streamed the England-Tunisia group stage (first round) clash.[7] While these lopsided numbers highlight the dominance of the FIFA World Cup in both the OTT streaming markets and television broadcast, it is important to note the caveat that the World Cup is an event adored by fans all around the world, while the Super Bowl is more constrained to a single region, appealing largely to fans within the U.S. For a more holistic understanding of the World Cup OTT market, a more apt comparison could be to examine the Summer Olympic Games, a sporting event on the same time scale as the World Cup and that extends to a similarly global audience. The 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio saw a massive downfall in TV ratings, but NBC kept its head high, boasting that the “missing” views came from live streaming. Live streaming was indeed the saving grace for NBC in the summer of 2016, as 100 million unique users streamed the games, equating to approximately 3.3 billion minutes of live streaming.[8] While these are certainly impressive numbers, they still aren’t quite as breathtaking as the ratings achieved by the World Cup. Through June 25th (nearing the end of the group stages), the tournament had already reached 1 billion minutes of streaming on Telemundo alone. With the the more compelling knockout stages still to come , these numbers are expected to skyrocket.[9]    

Piracy and the World Cup: OTT’s Biggest Rival:

With the blessing of popularity comes the curse of piracy. While major OTT providers are thrilled to have the opportunity to stream World Cup games, threats of piracy loom large. All over the internet, illegal streams provide users with free means of watching matches. But these streams can cost OTT providers money, as pirates steal the streams from those providers to redistribute it for free. Illegal streams are mostly provided on social media platforms, such as Facebook and YouTube. Through these social media channels, an estimated 4 million viewers were able to stream the matches illegally.[10] That is a rather significant number, which has driven OTT content providers to take action against piracy. In Hong Kong, for example, two men were arrested for streaming World Cup matches illegally, stealing the stream from Now TV, an online paid broadcasting platform.[11] More and more precautions are being taken to prevent piracy; prevention companies monitor the internet to detect illegal streams and take them down, which has become easier to do as cybersecurity has become more and more advanced. So while the World Cup and the OTT streaming market have been plagued by piracy for as long as anyone can remember, OTT providers have made significant strides in limiting the problem, and minimizing the loss of valuable viewers to pirates.

Looking Ahead to 2022:

With the 2018 World Cup nearing its end, it’s never too early to look ahead to 2022. This year’s tournament has featured a plethora of upsets, including Germany’s shocking exit in the group stages, which will surely have fans craving the next tournament the moment this one is over on July 15th. Looking ahead to World Cup 2022, which is set to be held in Qatar, ratings are incredibly hard to project. Qatar is 7 hours ahead of the East Coast of the United States, the same difference between Russia and the United States for this year’s tournament, meaning that time difference shouldn’t be a factor when projecting ratings. However, other questions remain. How will the tournament’s expansion to 48 teams (up from the 32 teams that competed for the title this year) affect viewership? More teams in the tournament would likely translate to more spectators, since viewers from 16 more countries would be added to the mix, but it is possible that expanding to 48 teams means the inclusion of weaker countries, and therefore less intriguing matchups. In all likelihood, the overall ratings, both broadcast and OTT, should rise during Qatar 2022, but with sporadic ratings from game to game would likely draw in more viewers than a matchup between two of the lesser known teams to qualify. Although the world of OTT will continue to evolve in the coming years, this remains merely a projection, and it remains difficult to predict whether World Cup streaming views will rise, drop or stagnate in 2022. One thing can be said for sure, though: although ratings are difficult to project, Fox Sports and Telemundo Deportes, the two streaming rights owners in the United States for the 2022 tournament, will be eagerly awaiting the next cup.

Writing Contributions: Owen Marshall & Thomas de Villemejane

[1]  SportsPro Media [2] SportsPro Media [3] SportsPro Media [4] Economic Times [5] Variety [6] CNET [7] Forbes [8] TV by the Numbers [9] World Soccer Talk [10] MediaPlay News [11] SCMP