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Russian takeways: what did the sports industry learn from the Fifa World Cup?

The 2018 Fifa World Cup has been warmly received, on and off the pitch, and the events of the past few weeks have provided some significant pointers as to the direction of travel in the business of soccer.

by Eoin Connolly
Russian takeways: what did the sports industry learn from the Fifa World Cup?

After 64 games played across 12 venues in 11 Russian cities over 31 days, the 2018 Fifa World Cup is at an end.

A tournament which cost a reported US$14.2 billion to put on, attracted a few million visitors and hundreds of times as many television viewers, finished in Moscow’s revamped Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday with France beating Croatia 4-2 to claim soccer’s greatest prize for the second time. 

Those are the barest facts about an event that had been greeted with some trepidation, amid concerns about the suitability of its host and the withering appeal of the international game, has been waved off as one of the most successful recent editions of the World Cup, on and off the pitch. 

These days, it might be said, the World Cup is a place for execution, rather than innovation. Elite soccer is transformed not during these high-stakes contests but in the years in between, by club sides and their big-thinking coaches. The same might be said of the activity around the tournament: the industry applies lessons learned elsewhere to the biggest test of them all. 

But the singular focus of the World Cup does provide a quadrennial checkpoint as to where the sports business stands. Here, SportsPro outlines some of the key trends that emerged or were emphasised in the past month. 

TV still the thing this year

One prediction was barely even worth making about this year’s World Cup: hundreds of millions of people were going to watch. Viewing figures set or approached records in countries across the world – not least in those countries close to Russia’s time zones, particularly in Europe – and confirmed the role of live sport as appointment-to-view television in an era where that term has all but ceased to exist elsewhere. That has particularly proved the case for an event where free-to-air outlets dominate access in most markets. 

Even in those countries whose teams were not participating, there was considerable appetite for live broadcasts. 14 of the top 20 audiences in the group stage came from China, where 44.74 million viewers tuned into CCTV-5 to watch Argentina’s surprise draw with Iceland. By the end of the first round, the cumulative TV audience for Russia 2018 had hit 815 million. The same measurement totalled 623 million for Brazil 2014. 

Digital platforms have also posted healthy numbers. The first weekend of the group stage, which saw four matches played on the opening Saturday, was a bonanza. 7.7 million Americans accessed live streams of the aforementioned encounter between Iceland and Argentina, a new one-match high which more than doubled the peak set during Brazil 2014. In the UK, both the BBC and ITV worked to improve the quality of their delivery and reduce lag between linear and digital sources. Both were rewarded: commercial network ITV set an in-house record when 4.3 million viewers requested streams of England’s semi-final defeat to Croatia; the publicly funded BBC had equalled its Brazil 2014 total of 32 million match streams by the end of the first round.

Still, there were also reminders of the importance of reliability in providing digital coverage. Nowhere was this plainer than in the case of Australian telco Optus, which was forced into a sub-licensing agreement with free-to-air SBS amid catastrophic issues with its service in the early days of the tournament. Globally, research from online video analyst Conviva found that of the 486 million attempts made to access live streams across the first 20 matches, 96 million were unsuccessful due to problems with reliability or internet speed. 

Overall, the tournament supported the suggestion that for major events, viewers will revert to the ‘best screen available’. That digital ITV audience for England’s exit, for example, was dwarfed by the 26.5 million who watched on television – a figure that does not account for those watching in bars and public viewing areas. With highlights and other short-form video increasingly finding a home on mobile, it is clear how fundamental the right media mix is becoming for major events. 

Sponsors need to think smaller to go bigger

Plenty was made in the build-up to the tournament about the difficulty Fifa had in attracting sponsors to a World Cup in Russia – with the combination of a local economic slowdown and the country’s declining international reputation provoking wariness among brands. No Western European or North American sponsor has been signed for a World Cup since Johnson & Johnson ahead of Brazil 2014 but in the event, major investment from China and a brief late flurry of domestic partners proved enough to take Fifa to its sponsorship target for this cycle. 

Chinese companies like Vivo, Hisense and Wanda are at a different level in terms of international profile than longer-term World Cup partners such as Budweiser and Coca-Cola, which makes assessing the usefulness of the tournament’s commercial platform in its current mould a more difficult exercise. Certainly, for some of those sponsors, a more traditional blanket approach to exposure may have held some value. Elsewhere, however, there were signs that a more targeted model will be the way forward

US sportswear brand Nike – a non-tournament sponsor which nevertheless enjoyed the sight of two teams wearing its kit in the final – reportedly enjoyed great success with a more digitally and locally focused campaign than in previous years. Gone was the big-budget global advertising spot of World Cups past. Instead, its ‘Believe’ campaign of short films featuring endorsers in a range of markets generated over 100 million views and 50 million engagements across social platforms during the competition.

Budweiser, which was an official tournament sponsor, used its sponsorship of the man of the match award to drive a leading 55,000 mentions on Twitter, according to research by MediaCom North. For partners, a strong social media presence was also at the centre of efforts to drive away ambush marketing.

FMCG brands like Budweiser and Coca-Cola will always have natural points of contact with fans throughout the world during the competition but being internationally relevant is a challenge for other sponsors. Reactive promotions are one option: this week Visa has renamed the Southgate station on the London Underground in honour of England manager Gareth Southgate, in a move which also promotes its contactless payment service on the network. McDonald's picked up live OTT rights from Red Bee Media to matches for its restaurants in Sweden, while the fast-food chain also partnered with Google and media agency OMD Hong Kong to push messaging at 'hungry moments' – key points during games when fans were likelier to order food.

But with the next tournament in the tiny Gulf state of Qatar, and mass public gatherings proving popular in cities around the world this time, it may be that large-scale experiential activations away from the host nation become more common in four years’ time. 

One further consideration for prospective partners is the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system, which made its World Cup debut to a reception which was more positive than not. There were no takers for a possible sponsorship slot for the system this time – perhaps due to doubts over perception and guaranteed airtime. With VAR having been executed more elegantly in Russia, and with greater theatre, than in any of its pre-tournament trials, that may not the the case in the near future. 

A new generation of stars is here – but the legends will endure

With Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi’s teams eliminated within hours of each other in the round of 16, there was an opportunity to shift the focus to a different set of players. Players from the second rank of elite stars – such as the man of the tournament, Croatia’s Luka Modric – came to the fore, while others made their impact in clusters, such as Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ of glittering talents and England’s less-heralded batch of humble heroes.  

Then, of course, there was Kylian Mbappé, the teenage marvel who brought another dimension to the play of the world champions. The 19-year-old was hardly an unknown quantity before the World Cup began, having completed a big-money move from AS Monaco to Paris Saint-Germain last summer. But the shot of adrenaline he provided will have been duly noted by fans and brands throughout in a competition where he succeeded in outdoing his celebrated Brazilian clubmate Neymar. 

The impact of some of those individual and collective performances was strongly felt on social media, in what was arguably the first World Cup to feature a majority of ‘digital-native’ players. Data released by Instagram found that 272 million people users interacted over 3.2 billion times with World Cup-related posts. Mbappé’s Instagram following swelled by 2.7 million, while the accounts of England’s most popular ten players attracted an additional 4.19 million altogether. 

Yet the most popular players on the platform remain Ronaldo, Messi and Neymar, with all ten of the most popular Instagram posts featuring one of those established stars. Portuguese captain Ronaldo, whose mid-tournament move from Real Madrid to Juventus saw millions of fans migrate to the latter’s social media accounts, featured in eight of those posts. The old guard are not ready to fully surrender their position just yet, though their succession seems nearer than seemed likely back in June.

The way in which players’ identities are used has also evolved. Fan-focused platforms like Copa90 and athlete-led ones like The Players’ Tribune made their presence felt throughout, altering the way the story of the tournament was told and bringing those on the field into that process. Meanwhile, Adidas’ advertising campaign brought its endorsers together with musical artists including Pharrell Williams and Stormzy to perpetuate the trend for promotional crossovers through sport, music and lifestyle.

Formats are fundamental

This may have been a tournament lacking indisputably great teams or performances – whatever that means – but it was competitive, committed and utterly dramatic almost throughout. Good games abounded, good teams generally progressed, the best team won and international soccer felt vital again in a summer where the future shape of the game had been the subject of much conjecture. 

There has been plenty of discussion about where this competition will sit in the pantheon of great World Cups but what is worth noting is how few truly poor matches were played. Some of that comes from factors that cannot be controlled on a macro level – the gaps in quality between teams, the styles of play that are effective and in vogue – but one thing that is within Fifa’s remit is the format. 

The 32-team structure that has been the World Cup’s hallmark since 1998 is among the more elegant in sport. The competition folds neatly in half at the end of each stage, and the balance ensures that – for the most part – teams and fans are aware of the stakes going into each match, with no lucky losers or similar variables to consider. A team’s destiny is mostly within their control. 

It is also a format that produces very few dead rubbers or opportunities to collude; many of those that do emerge, like England and Belgium’s apparent ‘must-lose’ encounter in the group stage this time, are usually the result of coincidence. Fifa will introduce a 48-team format in North America in 2026, if not before, and that promises to be more unwieldy. 

At this point, it seems like the governing body is looking to make the World Cup a higher-volume media event: more games will be on at more times. But for that 80-match competition to succeed as a high-intensity broadcast proposition, with a decent number of must-watch fixtures played to a strong standard, there will be a difficult puzzle to solve.

And what we didn’t learn… what will this mean for Russia?

After nearly eight years of recriminations and suspicion, not to mention the kind of geopolitical shenanigans that would have seemed outlandish even in 2010, Russia finally got the chance to host its World Cup. And the consensus is that it did a wonderful job. 

The action on the field helped – and, as with the sport, lowered expectations may have played their part. Few of the nightmares that might have been visited upon the tournament – from crowd violence and heavy-handed policing to in-venue outbreaks of racist chanting and abuse – became apparent to anyone on the ground. 

Moreover, many visitors were struck by the warmth of the public welcome and cultural richness of Russia itself. The logistical skill with which the tournament was executed has earned high marks in a competition with an enormous geographic footprint and many hours of travel involved. Keen to keep a good thing going, Russia has extended the validity its visa-free FanID scheme for ticket-holders until the end of the year to allow for a return trip. 

Nonetheless, doubts remain over the long-term viability of the sporting infrastructure after what is purported to be the most expensive World Cup of all time. Meanwhile the appropriateness of awarding the tournament to Russia – or, more accurately, to its ruling regime – is something that will only become apparent over time. The Olympic cauldron had barely gone cold over Sochi in 2014 when Russian troops were making incursion into Ukrainian territory. Revelations of state-backed doping, on a colossal scale, would only emerge a little over 18 months after the goodwill from a cascade of home medals had been banked. 

Even as this World Cup has continued, news has continued to trickle out about the alleged scale of Russian interference in electoral processes in the US, the UK, and France, not to mention the Putin government’s alleged links to a fatal poisoning on British soil. Putin himself went straight from the tournament to a grimly received Helsinki meeting with US president Donald Trump, ensuring a battery of more negative headlines. 

Reports have suggested that Russian authorities have presented an atypically friendly face to the world over recent weeks and, more pertinently, have looked the other way from spontaneous public displays of celebration after home wins in a way that the locals may or may not get used to. The appearance of protestors from the Pussy Riot group during the final was a reminder of issues that have been left to one side for the duration of the tournament. So too was the #HiddenFlag campaign from Spanish digital agency Lola and LGBT organisation FELGTB, which saw a group of fans travel around the country in shirts whose colours completed the Pride flag – currently banned in Russia. 

Those questions will be addressed anew in the weeks and months ahead. The past month has been a reminder of the value of giving world class performers their stage but with another politically charged tournament looming in Qatar in 2022, and the machinations of Gulf governments set to have a wider influence on how world soccer is run in the meantime, it will be futile to deny the shadow politics continues to cast over these events.