The month-long World Cup 2010 tournament, which kicks off Friday in Johannesburg, is expected to be the most-watched television event in history.
Each match is projected to average up to 125 million viewers worldwide during the month-long tournament, according to Interpublic Group's Initiative, a global marketing agency.
The tournament’s final match, on July 11, is forecast to draw the biggest audience of any sporting final in history, surpassing the 715 million people who watched the 2006 championship game.
But will American audiences tune in? Many advertisers hope so, because they've invested tens of millions of dollars in sponsoring US broadcasts.
The US is not a soccer powerhouse – in terms of players or fans – but the trends look promising, nevertheless.
US viewership has increased with each World Cup. In 2002, 70 million Americans tuned in to the tournament on ESPN/ABC. In 2006, about 78 million watched on ESPN/ABC, and an additional 40 million watched on Univision, the nation's biggest Spanish-language network. Univision's broadcast of the Argentina versus Mexico game in 2006 drew 6.7 million viewers, more than any sports telecast on US Spanish-language television.
Last year’s Confederations Cup games (the lead-up tournament to the World Cup) drew surprisingly big US audiences. Nearly 4 million Americans tuned in to the tournament’s final game, between the US and Brazil – the third largest audience for a US men’s soccer match ever, and the biggest for a game outside of the World Cup.
This year’s Cup promises to be the most digital yet, which could spur more interest from Americans, and is drawing online ad dollars from companies.
Audiences will be able to watch every game except the 10 broadcast on ABC, streaming live online at espn3.com (as long as they connect with Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, or one of the more than 140 service providers listed). They can watch 25 World Cup games on 3D TV through ESPN’s new 3D channel. They can catch all 64 matches on the go with FLO TV, which allows viewers to watch every World Cup game live on a mobile TV device.
There are also several websites, such as goal.com, dedicated to the World Cup exclusively, which let visitors register their fantasy World Cup team, provide live game updates, blogs, and in-depth team and player profiles.
A lot of advertising money has been premised on a big TV turnout in the US.
Although ESPN and Univision don’t release advertising rates, each FIFA World Cup sponsor is contractually obligated to a roughly $40 million investment. With additional advertising campaigns, ad spending could reach $100 million. [Editor's note: this sentence was changed to reflect more accurate advertising projections.]
The 2010 FIFA World Cup and ESPN broadcast sponsors are:
ESPN partners include AT&T, Cisco, EA Sports, and Microsoft. The remaining FIFA World Cup Sponsors (who are not sponsoring ESPN’s coverage in the US) include the lubricant manufacturer Castrol, Emirates Airlines, Continental Tires, MTN Wireless, Visa, and Satyam, the Indian technology company.
Hefty investments could pay back big for sponsors. Leading up to the 2006 World Cup, adidas reported a 37 percent increase in first-quarter sales, and reported sales of $1.5 billion during the month-long tournament.
One early indicator of how many Americans will tune in to the World Cup this year could be the US team’s much–hyped first match against England Saturday, which will air at 2:30 Eastern time on ABC.
The British team, a contender to win the tournament, is heavily favored, but the US has history on its side. The last time the two teams played a World Cup match was 1950 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, when a rag-tag American team beat the British powerhouse 1-0.
If the US can pull off another upset, maybe American audiences will be more likely to follow the national team through the tournament.