We've all seen it. For years, decades, it's been an advertising staple. At World Cup time, our televisions are filled with images of, well, ourselves. The child in Africa watching a fuzzy, analogue signal of his millionaire idol a thousand miles away; the sober Swiss erupting in shouts of joy as the back of the net is rattled; Brazilians celebrating the moment only as Brazilians can, in a beachside bar; and all the rest.
There are few images as likely to resonate with the viewer as the idea that, for the biggest game of the sporting calendar, they are not alone.
One can scarcely imagine this kind of campaign surrounding other sports or events. The Super Bowl relies too heavily on an American audience; rugby and cricket don't stand a chance; even the Olympics are too decentralized to truly attract the world. But the World Cup? All the cliches are true: in most countries, normal life stops.
Housewives who haven't watched a game in years — four years, to be exact — sit beside husbands in front of the TV. Entire villages will gather around the civic set to catch a glimpse of the action. Countries where football already borders on the religious will show unparalleled levels of devotion, with more than a few sick days at work called in, appointments missed and phones switched off.
No wonder the advertisers love the image so much. It is, in our decentralized, digital age, a reminder of our shared humanity, what television might have been, what sport still can be.
But what advertisers love even more is us watching ourselves. That means more advertising revenue. And if the World Cup isn't the best chance there is to catch us all in front of the TV...
That said, it's not really all of us. In fact, it's not even most of us. FIFA used to claim figures of the orders of billions watching each game. Using modern research techniques, various organizations have settled on the viewing figures for the last World Cups. While not of the magnitudes previously claimed, they still make for impressive reading.
Some would even argue that this itself is a high estimate, given that it's said to include those who watch a replayed viewing later. Perhaps 400 million watching live is closer to the truth, but measuring those out-of-home viewers is the real problem.
Indeed, with the number of people watching in cafes, bars, town squares and even fanzones around the world, the ripple effect will be felt far beyond living rooms.
And that's before we even think about the tournament as a whole. FIFA, after much wrangling, settled on a figure of 26.29 billion cumulative World Cup views — comfortably enough for everyone on the planet to have watched more than three matches. The vast majority of these were in-home, at 24.2 billion.
These figures put the World Cup streets ahead of any other sporting competition's verifiable figures, including the Olympic Games and the Super Bowl. That's not too surprising in the case of the latter: despite the gargantuan status of American Football's biggest prize, the last World Cup was broadcast in 214 countries and territories and thus has a global reach that even the Olympics would struggle to match.
Indeed, compare these untold billions of television viewers to the fewer-than-four-million fans expected at the stadiums and it's clear that football is, as much as it is the world's game, the TV's game.
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