It’s probably one of the staler Fifa World Cup clichés to describe the tournament as a footballing feast, or some version of that expression.
Still, some things got to be clichés for a reason. And there’s a relationship between the way people have come to eat and how they will consume games, so to speak, in world soccer’s month of plenty.
Among the most striking social changes of recent times has come in the way people think about food – and particularly other peoples’ food.
Even half a generation ago – speaking from a British perspective, at least – food from other countries was seen as a way of emphasising difference. Foreign dishes were viewed with suspicion, or at least as the height of exotic indulgence. Foreign trips were marked for many by the quest for meals they could get at home.
But in the time since, especially among the young, the thinking around international cuisine has moved on entirely. Between the explosion of street food in urban centres around the world, and aspirational yet accessible writing and television pioneered by the likes of the sadly departed Anthony Bourdain, culinary adventures are widely celebrated and popular habits have shifted in kind. Sampling or combining new tastes, without pretension or agenda, has become a simple way of enriching everyday life.
Across the first 20 World Cup games, a total of 486 million attempts were made to stream matches
Plenty of fans now follow soccer in a similar fashion, taking in club leagues and competitions from faraway regions, and the first round of the World Cup on television is a chance for hundreds of millions to indulge that tendency to the full. With the drama simmering before the later rolling boil, it’s all about the experience, rather than the stakes. Watching teams and players who might have otherwise gone undiscovered, or seeing familiar faces in unusual combinations; getting a flavour of a new culture and maybe breaking bread with strangers. It’s the global street food market of international sport.
But with three or four games to watch a day, and work and life and all the rest to fit around them, it’s the viewer’s choice to snack or gorge. Binge on live coverage from the sofa or grab bite-size clips on the go? Tuck into the action while it’s piping hot or warm it up again on demand? Tournament by tournament, since live streaming first emerged about a decade ago, the options have only proliferated. This year World Cup sponsor McDonald’s, fittingly enough, has signed a deal in Sweden to use Red Bee Media’s live OTT streams in its own fast food outlets.
Here in the UK, the audiences for England’s first two wins have peaked at 18.3 million and 14.1 million on BBC TV, but another three million and 2.8 million requests were made for live streams. Research issued last week by online video analyst Conviva, which provides measurements for a host of broadcasters and digital platforms, found a peak of 7.7 million concurrent live stream requests during the tournament’s opening weekend as Argentina stumbled to an unlikely draw against Iceland.
Conviva reported that overall, across the first 20 games, a total of 486 million attempts were made to stream matches. A cumulative 6.9 billion minutes of soccer were watched by 59 million unique viewers, who watched two matches apiece on average.
With three or four games to watch a day, and work and life and all the rest to fit around them, it’s the viewer’s choice to snack or gorge
Yet there’s another side to its findings that speaks to how the recipe for online and mobile distribution of live sport is still being worked out. According to Conviva, 96 million of those live stream requests were unsuccessful – frustrated by errors or slow start times. In Australia, meanwhile, telecoms company Optus was forced into a sublicensing agreement with free-to-air TV network SBS until the end of the group stage after its online streams congealed disastrously. Optus Sport subscribers were issued refunds.
Those mishaps are not altogether surprising in an emerging sector trying to replicate the performance of an industry with 90 years of practice. Reliability is a big reason most media companies will expect fans to return to the best available screen for the knockout stages – which in most cases will mean linear TV.
But it’s not the only reason. One aspect of the live sport experience that is often overlooked in conversations about digital distribution is ritual. Whatever the quality, there’s a difference between a Cuban sandwich and a three-course dinner. It comes in how people prepare, what they wear, where they sit, who they eat with, what they talk about. There are meals that are meant to be remembered.
Some will gather with family or invite friends over for games as the World Cup wears on; others will absorb every moment of pre-match build-up alone. Those BBC figures from England’s victories over Tunisia and Panama did not take into account people who gathered in pubs and fan zones across the country to watch with a crowd – millions more will do so for the big occasions to come.
All of this is why broadcasters, rights holders and others who grant access to live sport are beginning to see the cause for providing as many outlets as possible and giving them complementary, rather than competitive status.
A full menu, fit for all dietary preferences and requirements.