The days of regular TV ratings bonanzas may be over because of an increasingly fragmented viewing environment, but the World Cup, which wrapped July 15, underscored the enduring power of linear TV when it comes to broadcasting live events.
While the Olympics are the biggest TV event globally, the World Cup final remains the single most-watched sporting event. Although the global viewing figure for this year’s deciding match, which saw France beat Croatia, has yet to be determined, it’s expected to be on par with the estimated 900 million people worldwide who tuned in to watch Germany defeat Argentina in 2014, according to Kantar Media.
“The takeaway from this World Cup is that the power of linear TV to reach millions of people with live events can’t be matched by Netflix and other streaming services,” said François Godard at Enders Analysis.
The final drew an estimated 107 million viewers in 19 European countries, according to Eurodata TV Worldwide, which noted the strong ratings in the region were fueled by the presence of teams from France, England, Belgium and Croatia in the final four.
“The 2018 FIFA World Cup ended on a climax in an epic European confrontation,” Yassine Berhoun, sports director at Eurodata TV, said in a statement. In an age of mobile devices and nonlinear viewing, “major sports events are the only shows capable of gathering such large audiences in front of a TV set.”
French commercial network TF1 emerged as a big winner. Although the France-Croatia faceoff didn’t break ratings records — the Euro 2016 final between France and Portugal attracted 20.8 million viewers for network M6 during primetime — it drew 19.3 million viewers, an 82.2% market share, with a peak of 22.3 million by the end of the match.
TF1 had reportedly lost at least 20 million euros ($23 million) during the 2014 World Cup after spending more than $150 million for the rights. This time, it paid about slightly more than $80 million for exclusive free-to-air rights to 28 games “and will likely break even for the first time in 20 years, when France won the World Cup in 1998,” said analyst Jean-Baptiste Sergeant. He added that the network was able to sell 30-second TV spots for $350,000 during the final.
But sinking so much investment into the event is still a gamble for TV networks. “With the World Cup being played in the northern summer, there’s the threat of good weather hitting audiences and the unknown quantity of how a team will perform,” said Tim Westcott of IHS Technology. “This is the third finals in a row where the [defending] world champions were knocked out in the group stage.”
In the U.K., a spectacular audience average of 24.2 million watched England’s semifinal against Croatia on ITV (the final dropped to 11.3 million viewers, spread between the BBC and ITV). The team from defending champion Germany went out in a surprise upset during the group stage, but that didn’t stop 21.3 million people (76.1% market share) from tuning in to the final on German state broadcaster ZDF. In Spain, 8.2 million viewers (57.3% share) watched the match on Mediaset España’s Telecinco channel.
Even Italy and China, whose teams failed to qualify for the tournament, scored 11.7 million and 56 million viewers on Canale 5 and CCTV, respectively. For China, despite the late broadcast at 11 p.m., it was the largest audience for a sports program since the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Eurodata TV said.
And in the U.S., which also did not qualify, NBCUniversal’s Telemundo coverage reached 57% of the Latino population with its broadcasts. On Fox broadcast network, which aired more matches (38) this year than during the last four World Cups combined, the final peaked at 14.6 million viewers and marked the net’s most-watched non-NFL telecast this year, according to Nielsen Media Research. Overall, however, the lack of a U.S. team depressed ratings from the previous World Cup championship match. Per Nielsen, this year’s final drew 11.3 million viewers on Fox and another 500,000 on Fox Sports for a total of 11.8 million, down 32% from the 2014 final, which pulled in 17.3 million viewers on ABC.
Despite the victory for linear TV, many broadcasters turned to digital technology to boost their numbers. The BBC said it registered a record-breaking 66.8 million match requests via its iPlayer service and its website.
With the ability to capture so many eyeballs, sports remains indispensable for outlets like the BBC, TF1 and ZDF, even though the rights have become so expensive, said Enders Analysis’ Godard.
“Advertising revenues don’t finance sports events in most cases,” he said. “But it’s an expense that broadcasters can’t spare, because the live experience is the only weapon they have against streaming services like Netflix and the only opportunity they have to bring in millennials who never watch TV.”
Leo Barraclough and Stewart Clarke (London), John Hopewell (Madrid), Nick Vivarelli (Rome) and Joseph Otterson (Los Angeles) contributed to this report.