A billion reasons (and more) to be wary of TV viewing figures

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The Independent Football

If the 2006 World Cup does not become the most-watched sporting event in television history - and it may yet, pushing France '98 close despite the early exit of "box-office Brazil" - it has still broken global ground in astonishing fashion.

It has outdone cricket in India, set records for non-prime time in Australia and attracted women in unprecedented numbers. It has smashed records for Spanish-language viewing in America, drawn large parts of entire populations with no teams involved, and highlighted the fallacy that the English are especially passionate about watching their own team. In fact, 16 other countries are more dedicated than the English. (See accompanying tables).

The total aggregate live audience for the 64 matches is expected to be 5.9 billion people, or 93 million people per game globally, according to Initiative Futures, a global media agency which collates data from every major market in the world. These figures are "programme average audiences", meaning the average number of people who watched each game from pre-match build-up to post-match dissection. Using a rough rule of thumb, the peak audience for any given game will be one and a half times the programme average.

The best-watched match up to the end of the second round - the latest matches from which comprehensive data is available - was Brazil's group game with Croatia (160 million people, or 240 million peak), followed by Brazil v Australia (144 million), then Spain v France in the second round (137 million) and Japan v Brazil (131 million). No England games made the top 10.

Unlike football's world governing body, Fifa, which last week claimed that aggregate TV audiences for Germany 2006 would be 30 billion, Initiative uses only data from the official TV measurement supplier in each country, such as Barb in the UK. Neither do Initiative's figures include ratings of delayed footage, replays, highlights, news clips or out-of-home viewing. Fifa includes the whole lot, without much detailed breakdown.

To illustrate how misleading this can be, Fifa claims the 2002 World Cup final was watched by 1.1 billion people, or one in five people then on earth: man, woman or child. In fact, according to Kevin Alavy, the senior analyst at Initiative - whose clients are would-be advertisers and sponsors wanting the truest picture of audiences - that game was watched live by 250 million people, peaking around 375 million. Fifa's figures, based on a mix of ratings, surveys and out-of-home estimates, included anyone who saw any bit of the match at all, for any length of time, at any time, on television, including on news items afterwards, if only for a few seconds.

Fifa's figures are not wrong, per se, just presented to reflect a magnitude of interest that overstates the case - and unnecessarily so when the real data is staggeringly good enough. The 2006 World Cup figures are likely to be 15 per cent up on 2002, and close to 1998, the record holder for any event at around 6 billion people.

Not only that, but changes of broadcast format have impacted in some countries since 1998. There is now more pay-TV involved (which is significantly less watched, only one-thirtieth in some cases) and fewer games on free-to-air. Argentina, Hungary, Italy, Portugal and South Africa are among those countries affected. Yet the overall numbers, worldwide, have stayed high.

And how, in the strangest places. The opener between Germany and Costa Rica attracted 30 per cent more viewers in six major Indian cities (where accurate meter data is available) than India's cricket tour to the West Indies at the same time.

Australia's match against Brazil drew a non-prime time record average of 1.53 million viewers in Australia, peaking at 1.73 million at 3.46am.

Women watched in growing numbers, especially in the UK, where 47 per cent watching England v Sweden were women, a record in this country for football.

Viewers in America tuned in, with 10 million - a huge audience for "soccer" - watching USA v Italy. (Mexico v USA in 2002 attracted seven million people). Argentina versus Mexico, in the second round, drew 6.7 million viewers on Univision, making it the most-watched sports event in the history of Spanish-language TV in the USA.

In Estonia, meanwhile, on a night when six per cent of the population (80,000) were watching a Metallica gig in Tallinn, Brazil v Croatia still drew another nine per cent of the population on live TV. To borrow a Metallica line, the World Cup is some kind of monster.

The big picture: Who was watching what


(Top 10 most watched matches)

1 Brazil v Croatia 160m

2 Brazil v Australia 144m

3 Spain v France 137m

4 Japan v Brazil 131m

5= Germany v C Rica 128m

5= Brazil v Ghana 128m

7 Portugal v Neth'lands 122m

8 Argentina v Mexico 121m

9 Japan v Croatia 117m

10 Germany v Poland 114m

14 Sweden v England 106m

(Up to and including second round)

* PARTISAN PASSION (Top nations by per cent of population who watch own games)

1 Netherlands 44.7

2 Argentina 43.2

3 Croatia 41.2

4 Brazil 33.5

5 Sweden 31.7

6 South Korea 31.4

7 Switzerland 30.6

8 Ecuador 30.5

9 Italy 30.1

10 France 30

17 UK 21.8


(Per cent who watch all games)

1 Croatia 16.4

2 Uruguay 16.2

3 Netherlands 14.7

4 Germany 14.1

5 Hungary 12.7

6 Serbia & Montenegro 12.5

7 Switzerland 12.2

8 Brazil 12.1

9 Ecuador 10.6

10 Bulgaria 10.3

16 UK 8.3

Source for all figures: Initiative.