Mark Ritson: Even in 2026, most people will watch the World Cup on TV

Online streaming is a growing segment of video viewing, but TV’s average per-minute audience remains dominant for high-profile events like the World Cup, and will continue to be so long into the future.

World Cup

After another wonderful night in Russia and the sneaking sensation that it really could be coming home, it almost seems a shame to turn our attention from the pitch to the audience. But that’s what marketers do. When everyone else is watching the ball, we are watching the people watching the ball. Specifically, the size and nature of the online audience for this World Cup.

We might only be two weeks into the tournament but many pundits are already feverishly positioning Russia 2018 as the ‘digital World Cup’. To be fair, the audiences for the England games have proven larger than most traditional online programming. We have no news yet about the audience for last night’s Colombia game but England’s three group matches attracted 3.2 million, then 2.8 million and finally 2.2 million streaming requests.

Cue 200 acres of media coverage about millennials, ‘cord-cutting’ and how TV is almost dead because ‘I don’t watch TV’ and ‘my kids never turn it on’. The problem with that assumption, as usual, is the actual data itself. While both ITV and BBC certainly attracted big audiences to their online portals, these audiences were once again dwarfed by the big old boring box in the corner of the room. England’s group games were watched on TV by 13.7 million, 10 million and 13 million people.

For most audiences, most of the time, there is only one place to watch England blow it. It’s sat on the sofa, with your mates, staring at a giant screen and gently weeping.

It’s a strange but telling signal of the digital obsession of most marketers and media people that despite only taking around a fifth of the audience, the online coverage of the World Cup has managed to grab most of the headlines.

And, of course, estimating the online audience to be around 20% of the total viewing population is a nonsensical ratio based on the always misleading metrics handily used to communicate live stream numbers. TV audiences are almost always presented as an average per-minute number. So, the fact that 13.7 million watched England’s opening game against Tunisia means that during the 90 minutes England were on the field the TV audience averaged that number.

In contrast, a live stream request is a far less valuable number. It simply means that someone successfully started watching the coverage of England on their phone or laptop or smart TV. It does not mean that they watched the whole game or even a long section of it. And the difference between the numbers requesting a live stream and an actual per-minute audience can be spectacularly big, yet incredibly hard to discern to the untrained eye. Apples often look like apples when in fact they are – as I have noted before – bananas filled with horseshit.

READ MORE: Mark Ritson – TV and digital are dating, so who’s going to get screwed?

When Yahoo began to broadcast American football games in 2015 it infamously claimed an initial audience of 15 million unique viewers. With many TV broadcasts of NFL games often dipping below the 15 million threshold there was an instant buzz about the power of online viewing. But then analysts pointed out that Yahoo was merely recording live stream requests and that the actual per-minute audience was merely 2.4 million people – a fraction of the usual TV audience for the games.

If we applied the same ratio, perhaps unfairly, to the 3.2 million live stream requests for the England versus Tunisia game we might expect the actual per minute online audience to be around half a million people or about 4% of the total audience. That would line up with the recent 2016 Rio Olympics, where NBC’s audience figures in America showed that 97% of the Olympic Games were watched on TV and only 3% via online streaming. Yes, I know, that is mental. But that does not stop it being true and completely unreported by almost everyone.

TV’s enduring appeal

To be fair, a World Cup game is significantly shorter and more interesting than either an NFL game or the Olympics so the actual average streaming audience for an England game will be much larger than my 4% estimate. But it won’t be anywhere near three million people. And it won’t be anything other than a fraction of those watching on a TV.

If online digital TV audiences remain so minor why are the big TV broadcasters like the BBC and ITV going out of their way to proclaim them to be so large? Surely any self-respecting TV channel that is offering both online and regular broadcasting and seeing most of its audience still turning on the telly should proudly note the continued triumph of traditional TV.

READ MORE: Which brands are winning the World Cup ad stakes?

Well, not quite. For too long we have all been caught up in the paradigmatic divide between ‘traditional’ TV from the likes of ITV and BBC and digital video from the likes of YouTube and Amazon. As televisions become smarter, internet connections faster and viewers more adept, the line between these two camps will blur into nothing. It’s all just video and, as Netflix has notably demonstrated, it soon simply becomes just another way to watch the telly. I have no idea who will win the World Cup in 2026 in America but I will bet you the final is no longer exclusively shown by just ITV and BBC. Those days are coming to an end. Similarly, I can’t tell you how many people 8 years from now will be watching a broadcast game and how many will be looking at the live-streamed coverage on their TV but I bet most of the viewers won’t be sure either. By then the line between so-called digital video and traditional TV will have long disappeared.

But make no mistake – whoever has the rights to the World Cup in eight years time and whatever format they use to transmit the games, I’ll bet you they are still reaching the majority of their audience on the big screen on the wall. Mobile screens were never going to replace TV sets. Strip back all the digital bravado and mobile video was always going to be a minority supplement and a demographic over-representation, but nothing more.

Sure, some of the World Cup is being watched on smartphones while people head to work or catch the end of the game under the covers or dodge fifth period behind the bike sheds. But for most audiences, most of the time, there is only one place to watch England blow it. It’s sat on the sofa, with your mates, staring at a giant screen and gently weeping as all your hopes ultimately turn to shit. Again.

It might well be YouTube or Amazon or Facebook that dominates that screen in years to come but the fundamental technology of TV, despite the imminent predictions of its death, will remain. Even if football never makes it home again, we will watch its adventures on that big screen in the corner of the room for generations to come.

Hide Comments3 Show Comments
  • Jon Rolph 4 Jul 2018 at 11:36 am

    The only reason I’ve streamed any of the games form this World Cup online is because of the BBC’s UHD stream (and that service has so many buffering issues that I’ve found myself switching to TV up until half-time, at which point the stream’s buffering typically sorts itself out).

    Every game shown on ITV has been watched on TV, not online, simply because there are no added benefits to streaming it online. In fact, the aforementioned threat of buffering makes streaming the less-appealing option.

  • Will Burns 5 Jul 2018 at 7:39 am

    I streamed it on my laptop, but displayed it on my TV screen through Google Cast. It’s why the distinctions are increasingly meaningless.

  • Dom Graham 6 Jul 2018 at 5:03 pm

    I’m sure it’s an angle much cherished by digital agencies who want to tell you everything is dead except for the [insert current fad tech here] that’s definitely going to be the future. Just like the last one was. To paraphrase Monty Python’s Life of Brian “that new digital thing is the messiah, I should know, I’ve followed a few”

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