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Will Soccer World Cup Protests Hit FIFA Where It Hurts (in the Ratings)?

Walking the streets of any major European capital, you’d be forgiven if you’d forgotten that there’s a soccer World Cup starting in two days. Typically, ahead of the globe’s biggest sporting event — the official kick-off is Sunday, Nov. 20 in Doha — every main street on this soccer-mad continent would be plastered with billboards, and every TV commercial break packed with World Cup ads. 

This time, it’s different. 

Controversy over the decision to host the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, a country with a troubling human rights record, where homosexuality is still illegal, hangs over this year’s event.

“We note that major advertisers’ interest in using the World Cup to promote their brands seems muted compared to previous tournaments,” Enders Analysis analysts Tom Harrington and Gill Hind wrote in a recent report. Asked about the topic by The Hollywood Reporter, Harrington said the “cost of negative association” for brands being linked with Qatar may be why many advertisers appear to be sitting this one out. 

Fan groups across Europe have called for a boycott of this World Cup and national squads have also spoken out. 

Eight European teams, including tournament favorites France, Belgium, England and Germany, will wear rainbow-colored OneLove armbands during tournament matches, a symbolic protest against Qatar’s anti-LGBTQ laws, which make consensual gay or lesbian sex a criminal offense, punishable by up to three years in prison. 

English team captain Harry Kane wearing the OneLove rainbow armband

Eddie Keogh – The FA/The FA via Getty Images

The Danish World Cup squad has also redesigned its team shirts to feature a faded national team badge and will include an all-black jersey meant to honor migrant workers who died during construction work for the tournament. Last year, the Guardian reported that 6,500 South Asian migrant workers have died in Qatar since the country was awarded the World Cup in 2010. The report, which has not been independently verified, said a “very significant portion” of the deaths could be linked to World Cup infrastructure projects. Qatar has reportedly spent $220 billion in preparing for the tournament, erecting eight new stadiums, constructing new hotels, rail lines and highways, all built with migrant labor. Qatar disputes the death claims, saying there have been only three work-related deaths on stadium construction sites and 37 non-work-related deaths connected to World Cup preparations. 

In Germany, some 200 sports bars have signed up to the #KeinKatarInMeinerKneipe (“No Qatar In My Pub”) protest, refusing to broadcast 2022 World Cup matches for the duration of the four-week tournament.

The Qatar World Cup “is obviously talking place mainly as an act of ‘sports washing’ and to make [Qatar] appear to the international community differently than it actually is,” said Berlin sports pub owner Joschik Pech, part of the #KeinKatar protest, in an interview with Euronews. “We don’t feel good about watching the games and having fun knowing that it’s an absolute dictatorship where sexuality cannot be freely expressed or is severely persecuted.”

In a more dramatic protest, British comedian Joe Lycett has said he will stream a video of himself shredding £10,000 ($12,000) of his own money unless English soccer superstar David Beckham pulls out of a reported £10 million ($11.7 million) deal to be an ambassador for Qatar 2022. If Beckham drops the deal, Lycett says he will donate the money to charities that support gay rights in soccer. 

Against this backdrop, many international broadcasters covering the World Cup are focusing as much on activities off the pitch as on. Bell Media, the parent company of Canadian sports channel TSN, which has local rights to all World Cup games, told THR in a statement it is planning “wide-ranging coverage” of Qatar 2022 beyond the matches, with Bell’s flagship newscast CTV News set to tackle “human rights issues” while reporting on the ground in Qatar. German public broadcaster ZDF, which is sharing World Cup rights with sister network ARD, told THR it plans to “report extensively and critically on the World Cup in Qatar,” and sees the event as “an opportunity to draw the attention of a broad public to the situation in the host country and to provide information about it.”

It’s unclear whether this critical approach will impact ratings for the games themselves, and have a knock-on effect on World Cup sponsors and advertisers. 

“There are people saying: ‘I won’t watch this time,’ but whether that will change once the ball starts rolling remains to be seen,” ZDF spokesperson Thomas Hagedorn wrote to THR. “Things could change once the German team starts [going deep] into the tournament.” 

The FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 countdown trophy clock in Doha, Qatar.

Photo by Liu Lu/VCG via Getty Images

Even if European viewership does dip this time around, fans in other territories, where there has been less negative coverage of Qatar, could help make up the numbers. 

Across the Gulf itself, it is fair to assume that Qatari-state-owned beIN Sports, which has exclusive rights to the World Cup across 25 countries in the Middle East and North Africa (and shares rights in France with local commercial network TF1), will be a tournament cheerleader. The hometown network, part of the Qatari-owned giant beIN (which owns, among many other entities, Miramax), is planning 24-hour coverage across six newly launching high-definition channels, with commentary in English, Arabic, French and Spanish. BeIN has signed up an impressive list of VIP guest presenters, including such soccer legends as Ruud Gullit, Gabriel Batistuta, Arsene Wenger and Alessandro Del Piero. 

Interestingly, beIN also had exclusive regional rights to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but saw its footage brazenly stolen by a major Saudi piracy operation set up the year before. With the two countries then in the midst of a major diplomatic rift, beIN was blocked in Saudi Arabia, so an operation called beoutQ began not only illegally streaming its live games, but even adding its own commentators, selling its own advertising and broadcasting anti-Qatari messages. Saudi and Qatar reconciled in early 2021 with the ban on beIN lifting, by which time beoutQ — which cost beIN several billion dollars in lost revenue — had already been shut down.

Despite that disruption, FIFA figures show that some 537 million people across Africa and the Middle East tuned in to watch the 2018 World Cup, a huge 66.2 percent surge on the 2014 Brazil World Cup. With several home sides to cheer for — alongside the host nation, Senegal, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Morocco, Cameroon and Ghana will all be playing in Qatar — ratings for this year’s tournament should soar even higher.

East Asia is expected to deliver a big audience for this year’s tournament. Japanese soccer fans, in particular, are preparing for the tournament with keen anticipation, eager to put a painfully disappointing episode in the nation’s sporting past behind them. Japan has appeared at the past six World Cups, but it was denied a chance at the 1994 edition thanks to a last-second Iraq goal in the final qualifier in Doha, Qatar’s capital. The match has become known in Japan as the “Tragedy of Doha,” and the Japanese squad’s current manager, Hajime Moriyasu, played in that game. Most of the media coverage in the country, so far, has focused on Moriyasu’s promises of a stronger showing in Doha this year, although there has been some coverage, both on television and in the country’s major papers, of the human rights protests occurring in Europe. The tone of the coverage has tended to treat the protests and controversy as a far-away curiosity, though, rather than an urgent issue that Japan should take action to support. 

China, despite not qualifying for the tournament, has caught World Cup fever, with soccer becoming a widely-watched spectacle across the country’s major urban centers. Several prominent Chinese brands, including Wanda Group, Mengniu Dairy and Vivo, are official corporate sponsors this year. According to estimates from London-based consulting group GlobalData, Chinese companies have put up $1.395 billion in sponsorship deals, more than the $1.1 billion spent by U.S. brands.

Human rights issues, however, are expected to barely register in China’s broadcasts of the tournament, which are being carried by state broadcaster CCTV and Migu, a streaming platform subsidiary of Chinese telecommunications giant China Mobile. China faced harsh global criticism of its own human rights record both in the lead-up to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, as well as when FIFA awarded China the rights to host the inaugural version of its expanded Club World Cup back in 2019. Beijing’s regular stance on such issues is to suggest that controversies that emerge under the mantle of human rights are “domestic concerns” that don’t justify “meddling” by foreign peers. Throughout the recent Beijing Winter Games, Chinese censors went into overdrive, scrubbing any hint of a human rights controversy from social media and online discourse within the country’s borders. 

Soccer world governing body FIFA is projecting a total TV audience of some 5 billion for the tournament, the equivalent of 25 Super Bowl Sundays, and while some brands might be avoiding mentioning Qatar, the 2022 World Cup still boasts an impressive list of top-end official sponsors, including Adidas, Visa, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Hyundai and others. 

A Nov. 16 forecast by analysts S&P Global predicted Qatar 2022 will be the most commercially-successful tournament of all time, generating $6.5 billion in total revenue for FIFA, from television broadcasting rights, sponsorship and marketing deals as well as ticket sales and hospitality. That’s up from $5.2 billion for Russia 2018 and four times the $1.6 billion earned for World Cup 2002 in Korea and Japan. 

FIFA’s decision to move the tournament from its usual June-July slot to November — a shift necessitated by Qatar’s extreme summer temperatures, which can top 43 degrees Celsius (109 degrees Fahrenheit), hot enough to pose a health risk for players — might actually help the bottom line. As S&P notes: “This delayed scheduling means that matches will be taking place within the most lucrative TV advertising period of the year. The fourth quarter traditionally outperforms all other quarters across most markets as major campaigns target the holiday period when high levels of consumer goods transactions occur.”

Harrington of Enders Analysis argues the opposite, noting that because ads are most expensive in Europe in the lead-up to Christmas, “aligning your product with this World Cup might not just be a risk to your brand, but one that costs a lot [as well].”

Mexican Fans in Doha for World Cup 2022

Mexican fans in Doha for World Cup 2022

Photo by PHILIP FONG/AFP via Getty

How valuable, or toxic, World Cup sponsorship turns out to be may have a lot to do with perceptions around the event, and how truly welcoming and cosmopolitan the Qatari hosts turn out to be. Ahead of the tournament’s kick-off on Sunday, Doha has had a few snafus, including an incident earlier this week when security staffers tried to shut down a live news hit from Danish channel TV2, threatening to smash the reporter’s camera if the crew didn’t stop filming.

“You invited the whole world to come here. Why can’t we film? It’s a public place,” TV2 reporter Rasmus Tantholdt tells the security personnel in a video of the incident, which has since gone viral. “You can break the camera. You want to break it? You are threatening us by smashing the camera?”

Qatari World Cup officials have since apologized to TV2, saying security made a mistake in trying to block filming.

Then on Friday, Qatar risked offending one of the tournament’s biggest sponsors —and beer fans everywhere — when it abruptly ruled that the only beer allowed for sale to fans at stadiums this World Cup will be nonalcoholic. Qatar is a conservative Muslim nation where the sale of alcohol is tightly controlled but, initially, plans included beer tents for fans within the tournament grounds. The move will also complicate FIFA’s $75 million sponsorship agreement with Budweiser, which had been counting on images of thirsty soccer fans lifting their red-labeled beer cups being broadcast around the world.

In the U.S., however, where Fox Sports holds the English-language rights to the tournament, and Telemundo holding the Spanish-language rights, even a more sober World Cup will likely see a boost in viewer ratings and soccer-related ad sales. With the U.S. team in the tournament this year (unlike four years ago), Fox execs say they are bullish on fan interest state-side.

Estimates from New York media investment group Magna Global, quoted in Sportico, put U.S. ad sales up 25-35 percent over 2018. Standard Media Index, which monitors advertising pricing, says Fox and Telemundo generated $225 million in World Cup-related ad sales in 2018, down 29 percent from the $319 million earned by Disney and Univision in Brazil 2014, the last World Cup to feature a U.S. squad. 

The timing of matches may also impact viewership numbers. Qatar is just 1-2 hours ahead of most European nations, meaning many of the evening games will be primetime viewing. Morning games, conversely, will be primetime in Asia, ideal for fans of the Japanese and South Korean squads. For American viewers, FIFA has conveniently scheduled all three of Team USA’s first-round matches in the late-night 10 p.m. slot, meaning fans can surreptitiously catch them during work hours: at 11 a.m. in Los Angeles or 2 p.m. in New York. 

But Fox viewers hoping for the network will take an aggressive approach to covering human rights abuses in the host country may be in for a letdown.

“Our stance is if it affects what happens on the field of play, we will cover it and cover it fully,” said David Neal, executive producer of Fox’s World Cup coverage, at a Fox World Cup preview event in New York Oct. 13. “But if it does not, if it is ancillary to the story of the tournament, there are plenty of other entities and outlets out there that are going to cover that. We firmly believe the viewers come to us to see what happens on the field, on the pitch.”

Scott Roxborough reported from Cologne, Alex Ritman and Georg Szalai from London, Etan Vlessing from Toronto and Patrick Brzeski from Tokyo.

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