SOUTH AFRICA TO HELP MAKE FOOTBALL A U.S. TV SPORT

By Yuri Serafini

Unless one lives under a rock or in the United States’ Anglo world, by now one has heard that FIFA’s football World Cup will be held in South Africa June 11-July 11. Across the globe, more than 150 different broadcasters, representing a similar number of countries, will be making sure that anyone anywhere will be able to watch the tournament. More or less, that is.

Many TV networks around the world can broadcast extensive coverage of as many matches as they choose to. But a good number of broadcasters will be limited in the number of matches they will be able to air, depending on what sort of package deal they worked out with FIFA. For example, Italy’s public broadcaster RAI is only licensed to air one match per day, while satellite TV platform SKY Italia will show every single game to its subscribers. France’s TF1 has a similar deal worked out — it can broadcast up to 27 matches — while the satellite, cable, and IPTV pay platform Canal+ will broadcast all games.

Broadcasters paid for packages based on the matches’ dates, rather than on the teams involved. This isn’t much of a problem for the U.S. Anglo networks, where viewing figures will be low regardless of which teams are playing. But those broadcasters in other parts of the world that only bought a select number of matches to be played later in the tournament will have to hope their country’s team makes it as far as those late stages, or risk lower-than-expected ratings.

It’s not likely that New Zealand’s TVNZ will be banking on its home team making it very far. But France’s TF1, Italy’s RAI, and Germany’s RTL will be airing a limited number of matches, and they obviously want their teams to play in as many of those as possible. This proves a problem for FIFA too, since it wants the heavyweights to stay in the running as long as they can, so as to maximize viewer interest.

As such, FIFA, the football world’s governing body, came up with the solution. In reality, the matches from the eight initial groups were not picked randomly (even if FIFA insists that they were randomly selected). FIFA placed all the teams into four “pots.” One pot was for the world’s top eight ranked teams. The other three pots were geographically organized: One for North America and Asia, one for Europe, and one for South America and Africa.

When the matches for each of the eight groups were decided, one team was taken from each pot, thus assuring at least one top-ranking team per group. This way FIFA was able to satisfy broadcasters’ needs from the major football countries.

Also, because one group’s first-place team plays the next group’s second-place team in rounds of 16, immediately following the group eliminations, the big football countries (and their broadcasters) basically have an easy ride to the quarter-finals.

Fans who will actually be inside the stadiums watching the games unfold will navigate 10 different venues scattered across South Africa, most of which are conveniently located in the northeastern portion of the country. With 63 matches being played (64 if one counts the third-place match, which few watch), every pitch will see about six matches, with the larger venues like Durban and Johannesburg hosting the final matches.

For most of the 100,000-plus ticket holders, getting from stadium to stadium will not be an easy task. There is an extensive highway system in place with Johannesburg at its center, but the sheer size of the country doesn’t make this a particularly attractive way to get around. A drive from Cape Town to Johannesburg takes about 15 hours. Luckily, most of the stadiums are located somewhat closer, grouped around the northeast. Trains are a more comfortable way for sports fans to get around. For those who want to travel in style, the famed Blue Train from Cape Town to Johannesburg has services and facilities comparable to most five-star hotels. Getting around within the host cities should also be simpler, as bus and trolley systems are currently being revamped to accommodate the expected increase in passengers.

But most of the people around the world will only be able to follow the games on television. According to FIFA, approximately one billion viewers tune in to watch the final alone, with similar, if lower figures for preliminary matches. It has been pointed out, however, that these figures are a bit exaggerated — by 70 million TV households, to be exact. According to Initiative Sports Futures, an independent sports broadcasting analyst based in England, about 260 million TVHH in 54 countries tuned in to the last World Cup final. Not a bad figure, but certainly not the figure FIFA boasted.
In the U.S. the situation is a bit complex. ABC will only air 10 matches on free-to air television, presumably the quarter-finals and beyond. On cable and satellite, however, ESPN and several of its spin-offs will offer more extensive coverage. And of course, Hispanic network giant Univision will air all the matches on free TV, but those American fans who don’t fully understand Spanish and rely on free Anglo TV services could be understandably displeased, or as they say in Spanish: no, nos gusta esta.

Apparently, Anglo TV networks in the U.S. can afford to toss away a billion-dollar industry. Some people reason that there is no place to air commercials, causing American broadcasters to be disinterested. But of course, that’s not a valid argument, since some 30 years ago European, Asian and Latin American broadcasters had the same problem and managed to come up with a feasible solution. If U.S. Anglo broadcasters can’t stop the game to flash the sponsors’ logos in viewers’ faces, why not place sponsors within the game electronically? This World Cup alone, 12 official partners/sponsors will see their logos displayed on banners beside the pitches, on streamers inside the stadiums, and (for additional sportswear providers) on the players’ shirts themselves — a good pool for broadcasters to monetize.

Budweiser, Castrol, Continental, McDonalds, MTN and Saytam have reportedly spent $100 million each in their advertising partnerships with this World Cup. So it’s not a money issue. Perhaps it’s a creativity issue. A philosophical form of creative sports like football can’t compete with American Football, where everyone takes commands from the quarterback, who has in turn been given instructions by the offensive coach.

It might also be a goal-scoring issue. Americans get bored if they don’t see scoring. Last World Cup, every game averaged about 2.3 goals. Not exactly a shoot-out. But it doesn’t take close examination to see that a goal is seldom the most exciting event in a match. A striker losing his marker in a display of footwork, a cross that curves at just the right moment, or a visionary through ball that makes one wonder just how many eyes these guys have, are all things that define what a beautiful game football really is. Instant gratification by high-scoring sports, as well as a society that praises speed and quantity over quality, points to some sort of cultural void in America, rather than an issue of advertising or boredom.