Controversy has swirled around this year’s FIFA World Cup in Qatar. From allegations of bribery and fraud in awarding the tournament to a small, wealthy Middle Eastern nation, to criticism of Qatar’s persecution of the LGBTQ+ community and its treatment of migrant workers
But judging by the viewership numbers after the first week of games, the critical coverage didn’t hurt the ratings much.
In the United States, Fox Sports and Telemundo, which broadcast the tournament in English and Spanish, got off to a very good start. Sunday’s opening game between Qatar and Ecuador averaged around 7 million people across both networks. An average of 4 million tuned in in Spanish on Telemundo, Peacock and Telemundo Deportes digital platforms, a 164 percent increase over the 2018 World Cup opener between Russia and Saudi Arabia. English-language viewing on Fox was up 78 percent compared to 2018, with 3.5 million viewers peaking compared to 1.7 million who watched the opening match in 2018.
But things really got going when the United States played on Monday. Almost 12 million viewers on Fox and Telemundo caught the 1-1 draw with Wales, with an average of 8.3 million watching on Fox across its broadcast and digital platforms and 3.4 million on the Spanish-language service.
Tuesday’s match Mexico vs. Poland averaged 4.6 million viewers for Telemundo and Peacock across all platforms.
Fox carefully avoided any criticism of the host country, Qatar, with hosts ignoring all controversial topics on air. Fox has a sponsorship deal with Qatar Airways and several Visit Qatar tourism spots ran during the channel’s coverage of the FIFA World Cup, but Fox denied that its sponsorship deals affected its coverage.
North of the border, Canada’s opener against Belgium drew an average of 3.7 million viewers on sports channel TSN, major network CTV and French-language channel RDS.
Bell Media, which is the parent company of TSN, says the game’s viewership made it the most-watched World Cup group stage game on record, citing overnight data from Numeris (Canada’s Nielsen). The last time Canada appeared at the World Cup was in 1988. The kickoff was the second most watched sports broadcast of the year in Canada, behind Super Bowl LVI.
Overall, 8.9 million viewers watched the match, or about one in four Canadians who watched part or all of the live coverage, which ended in a 1–0 victory for Belgium.
In Britain, the BBC took a more forceful stance on the problems in Qatar, moving coverage of Sunday’s opening ceremony off its main channel in favor of a human rights message presented by host Gary Lineker.
However, that position did not seem to dampen Britain’s appetite for the World Cup. A peak of 8 million tuned in to the BBC to watch England beat Iran 6-2 in their first game of the competition on Monday. While viewership was down significantly for the team’s opening game against Tunisia at the 2018 World Cup in Russia – which peaked at 18.6 million – it should be noted that the game was played in the evening, while the match against Iran was broadcast well outside prime time. at 1pm in the UK. The BBC said a further 8 million people streamed Monday’s game on iPlayer.
With a prime time 7pm on Friday and against their century-old foe, England’s game against USA should prove to be a much bigger draw, although the total number may be unknown due to the large numbers expected in the pubs.
Meanwhile, Wales, playing at the World Cup for the first time since 1958, beat their local rivals in terms of viewing figures, with a peak of around 13 million watching their dogged 1-1 draw with the USA on ITV (numbers no doubt helped. until the 7pm kick-off).
When England and Wales finally meet on Tuesday 29 November at 7pm, the evening slot and the fact that the two neighbors have never played in a World Cup should be a ratings bonanza for the BBC.
However, in Germany, where the official World Cup broadcasters ARD and ZDF have reported extensively on human rights abuses in Qatar and calls for a boycott of the tournament, viewership of previous World Cups has dropped significantly.
The German team’s surprise 1-2 defeat by Japan on Wednesday attracted just 9.2 million viewers on ARD, although the early start of the match – 2pm in Germany – may also have played a role. The crowd was a fraction of the nearly 26 million who watched Germany’s opening match at the 2018 World Cup in Russia (which the Mannschaft also lost 0-1 to Mexico).
Sunday’s opening match, hosted by Qatar, lost 0-2 to Ecuador, attracted just 6.2 million German viewers on ZDF. By comparison, more than 10 million Germans watched the opening match between Russia and Saudi Arabia at the 2018 World Cup.
In a pre-match team photo, German players covered their mouths in silent protest against soccer’s governing body FIFA, which threatened sanctions against players for wearing a rainbow “OneLove” armband as part of a campaign to raise LGBTQ+ awareness. rights. Consensual same-sex relationships are illegal in Qatar. FIFA says the armband violates its ban on “political symbols”.
“Even without the armband, our position stands,” said the German Football Association’s (DFB) official tweet, with a picture of players covering their mouths. “We wanted to set an example for the values we live in the national team: diversity and mutual respect. To raise our voice together with other nations. This is not a political message: human rights are non-negotiable.
Wir wollten mit unserer Kapitänsbinde ein Zeichen setzen für Werte die wir in der Nationalmannschaft leben: Vielfalt und gegünstigier Respekt. Gemeinsam mit anderen Nationen laut sein. Es geht dabei nict um eine politische Botschaft: Menschenrechte sind nicht verhandelbar. 1/2 pic.twitter.com/v9ngfv0ShW
— DFB-Team (@DFB_Team) November 23, 2022
While the German players did not wear the OneLove armband, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser proudly wore it as she watched the match, sitting next to FIFA President Gianni Infantino.
The OneLove controversy has already cost Germany: one of the national team’s sponsors, supermarket chain Rewe, canceled its contract with the German Football Association after the team bowed to FIFA demands to withdraw the armband.
“We stand for diversity and football is also diverse,” Rewe boss Lionel Souque said in a statement. “FIFA’s scandalous behavior is completely unacceptable to me as the CEO of a diverse company and also a football fan.”
After Germany’s loss to Japan, some in the local media blamed the OneLove bracelet debate and the team’s pre-match protest.
“There was too much drama in the build-up, too many issues that were more important than football, just like four years ago [when Germany went out in the first round], says former German captain and 1990 world champion Lothar Matthäus in the Bild tabloid. “Things like that break your concentration, they distract you – and that means you can miss the crucial five or 10 percent.”
There was little talk of protest or controversy at Japanese public broadcaster NHK, which recorded an impressive 40.6 percent share of the Tokyo market for its coverage of the Germany-Japan match, despite a late 10pm kick-off for Japan. Millions more caught the game on streaming platform Abema, with peak viewership surpassing a record 10 million on Wednesday, according to parent company CyberAgent Inc.
There were also no signs of protest when World Reining Championship champions France took to the field for their opening game against Australia on Tuesday. Les Bleus also had no problem wowing the home crowd. According to figures from ratings group Médiamétrie, 12.53 million locals tuned in to national network TF1 to watch the French team beat Australia 4-1, an audience on par with the 12.59 million who watched France’s opening match, also against Australia, in Russia in 2018.