The FIFA World Cup broke many television and online viewing records around the world, even if US audiences were down this year. But the big winner, in the age of the mobile, was arguably the traditional TV set.

In what is widely regarded as one of the most exciting football World Cups in decades, the most up-to-date audience numbers from Eurodata TV show that the final between France and Croatia was watched by 163 million people in 20 major markets.

The comparative figure is down from 2014, but that is likely due to the game’s start time. However, FIFA’s own worldwide numbers will not be available for several months and are likely to take the overall number near to the one billion who tuned into the final four years ago.

An average of 19.3 million French viewers (82.2% share) watched their national team take the trophy on free-to-air TF1, while BeIN Sports, the pay-TV broadcaster, also aired the game live in France and said that an average of 1 million subscribers tuned in.

Meanwhile in Croatia, 1.84 million viewers tuned in on HRT, the public broadcaster, with an average viewing share of 88.5%. That number was lower than HRT’s record audience of 2.05 million viewers set during the semi-final, but it was due to huge numbers of fans watching in outdoor locations, bars and cafes, numbers that were not included in the measurement data.

Pulling power of sport
Stephen Nuttall, commercial and strategy advisor on sports and a former senior executive at YouTube and BSkyB, says: “Top tier sports events have once again demonstrated their unique and sustained pulling power. In many participating countries, you might wonder what the rest of the country was doing whilst everyone else was watching the football.”

Stephen Nuttall

Stephen Nuttall

In the UK, England’s surprising performances meant massive audiences. The England-Croatia semi-final on ITV broke ratings records with 26.6 million people (an 84% audience share) – that’s 600,000 more than watched the London Olympics closing ceremony in 2012. This number beat the earlier tournament best for the match vs Columbia which drew 23.8 million, also on ITV. The BBC racked up impressive figures for their 32 matches with a total of 44.5 million people tuning into the coverage which is almost four million more than 2014.

According to figures released by FIFA, 14 of the top 20 largest global audiences during the group stage of the competition were in China. The numbers included 44.7 million for Argentina against the underdogs of Iceland and 56 million for the final, both on CCTV-5.

Julian Aquilina, research analyst at Enders Analysis, thinks the World Cup proves the resilience of the traditional TV screen in attracting viewers. “People are always after the best viewing experience,” he says, “and there’s no doubt this is found in the living room on the big screen. The numbers for viewing on smartphone or tablets or computers were large, but not in comparison to TV. It’s likely that people were only tuning in on those devices if they didn’t have access to the TV screen.”

Online records
This World Cup was definitely a record breaking one for online viewership. The BBC recorded 66.8 million match requests during the competition, including live and on demand, on the BBC Sport website and iPlayer. England’s quarter-final win over Sweden was the BBC’s highest online-viewed live programme ever with 3.8 million. For comparison, the final had a peak BBC One audience of 10.4 million. Meanwhile, ITV coverage of the England-Colombia game notched up three million viewing requests via ITV Hub. In France over half a million people followed the final on either a smartphone, tablet or computer.

YouTube and Facebook also showed extensive clips and highlights rights from both FIFA and via broadcast partnerships. The FIFATV YouTube channel had global highlights of every game and posted 33 highlights videos with more than 10 million views each, the most popular being Portugal vs Spain with 58 million views.

Alexios Dimitropoulos

Alexios Dimitropoulos

Alexios Dimitropoulos, analyst at Ampere Analysis, reckons between 10%-20% of World Cup viewing occurred online. “The online figures sound high, but actually in proportion terms, aren’t out of line with underlying viewing habits and trends in the UK, and perhaps even a bit lower than you might expect, although it’s difficult to say conclusively, given the social viewing in pubs and bars. Our estimates suggest that more than 25% of wider TV and video viewing is now not actually broadcast TV in markets like the UK – on this basis, the World Cup’s audience is much more broadcast-focused.”

Dimitropoulos also believes that while streaming services for sports are increasingly popular, it doesn’t necessarily mean that viewers prefer sports on smaller screens. “It is mostly to do with the ease of access, extra features and the ability to watch matches that they might otherwise have missed while on-the-go. The World Cup is a competition that suits online viewing as there are multiple games during the day with a heavy schedule over two weeks, meaning that for dedicated fans, online video is key for accessing outside the home.”

“People are always after the best viewing experience and there’s no doubt this is found in the living room on the big screen” - Julian Aquilina, Enders Analysis

Streaming stress test
The high volume of streams was an important stress test for online video services and could be a milestone in the evolution of sports streaming. Services including YouTube in the US and BBC iPlayer in the UK stumbled under the sheer volume with many users noticing the delays in streaming coverage versus broadcast.

“Before streaming can ever seek to replace broadcast, it needs to ensure that the viewing experience is at least comparable to ‘traditional’ viewing platforms,” says Dimitropoulos.

Of course, the story of World Cup viewing is usually based on how each country’s team performs. In Germany (the defending champions who were eliminated in the group stage), the final was still watched by a very healthy 21.3 million viewers (a 76% share) on ZDF, the public-service broadcaster.

Other key markets such as Italy and Holland were not represented at all in the tournament, yet viewing figures were still strong. In the Netherlands and Italy, 3.1 million and 11.7 million football fans respectively watched the final on NPO1 and Canale 5.

Disappointment in the UK
However, other markets were disappointing. The US team failed to get to Russia and the final on Fox was seen by 11.8m viewers according to Nielsen Media, with the game kicking off at 11 am Eastern time and 8am Pacific time. That audience was down over 30% from 2014 when the final was played in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

Other audience numbers on Fox were reportedly down by as much as 39% in the early part of the tournament. According to reports, up to the round of 16 matches, the Nielsen figures were 2.5 million Fox and FS1, down from the 4.1 million on ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC over the same period of the competition four years ago. Although the US team qualified for the tournament in 2014 and even made the round of 16 that year, the adjusted figures still show a drop in audiences of around 19%.

On the upside for FIFA, this was the first virtual reality World Cup, while other technologies also took a bow. VR viewers included thousands in the UK, France and the US who enjoyed various in-stadium viewing positions, while Chinese smart TVs identified players via facial recognition technology which also allowed fans to tap into player biographies and statistics.

But perhaps the stand-out story was still about the power of the World Cup as a TV event with massive pulling power especially in Iceland, the smallest country ever to qualify. As Stephen Nuttall points out: “Someone said to me when Iceland played Argentina and got over 90% audience share of the entire population, that the 10% ‘others’ were either fans in the stadium in Russia or they were the Iceland players on the field.”

A recent history of World Cup audiences

Massive viewing of the FIFA World Cup is hardly new. More than one billion fans tuned in to watch the final of the 2014 tournament in Brazil, while the 64-game competition itself reached a global in-home television audience of 3.2 billion people, according to figures from FIFA and Kantar Media.

An estimated 280 million people watched matches online or on a mobile device that year. Tournament viewing figures broke records in markets including the United States and Germany.

The final between Argentina and eventual champions Germany attracted an in-home audience of 695 million, up by 12% on the 2010 final for viewers watching for 20 minutes or more. The total audience for the final, including in-home and out-of-home figures for viewers watching for at least one minute, hit 1.013 billion.

In 2010, the tournament in South Africa was shown in every single country and territory on Earth, including Antarctica and the Arctic Circle, according to FIFA. That year the in-home television coverage of the competition reached over 3.2 billion people around the world, equivalent to 46.4% of the global population, based on viewers watching a minimum of over one minute of coverage. This represented an 8% rise on the 2006 competition.

Based on viewers watching a minimum of 20 consecutive minutes of coverage, the 2010 tournament reached nearly a third of the world population with 2.2 billion viewers, 3% higher than in 2006, again according to data compiled by Kantar Sport. The average in-home global audience for each match was 188.4 million, up 6% on 2006, while the highest average audience measured was for the final at 530.9 million, up 5%.