The myth that the World Cup final attracts a global television audience of more than a billion people has been debunked by an Independent investigation into TV viewing figures that shows that true audiences are between a quarter and a third of that size.
This prompted Fifa to admit yesterday that numbers up to now have been massively exaggerated in some cases, and simply guessed in others.
Football's world governing body has promised to use only verifiable data in future. "We are going to steer clear of estimating, and publish data from audited measurement systems only," a spokesman said.
The revelation about exaggerated figures not only raises questions about Fifa's methods for attracting multimillion pound sponsorship deals - including six major, long-term commercial partners, secured before the 2006 World Cup - but also about its tactics in marketing TV rights.
The company ultimately responsible for compiling World Cup TV data is Infront Sports and Media, based in Zug, Switzerland, and whose chief executive is Philippe Blatter, nephew of Fifa's president, Sepp Blatter. Infront also handles the global sales of World Cup TV rights.
It is not known whether any sponsors have complained to Fifa about exaggerated audience claims. The Independent contacted five of them - adidas, Coca-Cola, Emirates Airline, Hyundai and Sony - and they either failed to respond or said: "No comment."
However, a well-informed source said yesterday: "It is heartening to hear Fifa will use only accurate figures in the future. This is a response not just to media scrutiny such as that by The Independent, but also to a desire from sponsors to know the real numbers."
According to Fifa's overblown figures, the World Cup finals of 1998, 2002 and 2006 respectively attracted global audiences of 1.3 billion, 1.1 billion and 715.1 million people. It is understood the claimed figure for last year's showpiece between Italy and France is relatively low only because Sponsorship Intelligence, the respected London-based firm that collated the numbers for Infront, had already urged Fifa to be more realistic in the way data was compiled.
In fact, the 715.1 million still includes a large element of guesswork, including for most of Africa. It also used unreliable "diary data" (which overstates numbers) in some major Asian countries. The figure, concedes Fifa, also includes "a huge number of repeats, highlights and delayed showings", as well as an estimated 100 million-plus people watching "out of home".
So how many people actually watch the World Cup final live, from start to finish? According to Initiative Sports Futures, independent analysts with no ties to Fifa, the figure for the 2006 final was 260 million in the 54 key markets it surveyed, accounting for 90 per cent of the world's TV households. ISF sources figures only from markets where data is collated electronically by reputable monitors, such as Barb in the UK.
The Independent also contacted a range of similar bodies around the world during its investigation. Allowing for the 10 per cent of TV households not monitored, and viewers in public places, the live audience could be around 400 million. But the fact is that nobody knows, for sure, above 260 million.
Sponsorship Intelligence defended its methods of using "informed guesswork" in Africa, and "diary data" elsewhere (which has been shown to double the true numbers), because, as a spokesman said: "In the absence of anything else, what can we do? It's the best we've got." However, there is understood to be relief that Fifa will seek only verifiable numbers in future, and not ask for speculative, flattering figures.
A Fifa spokesman told The Independent: "In the absence of audited TV audience systems in less developed markets, SI has made best estimates of audiences based on the available data appreciating that, by their very nature, these assessments are subjective.
"In the future, to avoid any confusion, Fifa will be reporting and assessing the audiences just from those markets that have audited measurement systems."
The most glaring example of past audience exaggeration was in China during the 1998 World Cup. Audited figures were taken from one small area in Shanghai and extrapolated to the whole country to claim 10.8 billion "views" for the tournament. This was at least 8 billion more than the reality.
Even on 28 June last year, on day 20 of the 2006 finals, Infront was claiming the "cumulative total" for the German event would be more than 30 billion people for 64 matches (or 469 million per match). SI's figures subsequently said it was 26.2 billion, and this included all replays and out-of-home figures, audited, guessed or otherwise.
The irony is that the World Cup, by any measurement, is streets ahead of any other sporting event in popularity. Nor, as our accompanying table shows, has Fifa been unique in making claims about TV data that verifiable figures show to be laughable.
Lies, damned lies and TV viewing statistics: The most watched televised sports events of 2006
Football, Italy v France World Cup final, 715.1m/260m
American football, Super Bowl Steelers v Seahawks, 750m-1bn/98m
Winter Olympics, Torino 2006 opening ceremony, 2bn/87m
Football, Champs League Arsenal v Barça, 120m/86m
Formula One, Brazilian Grand Prix, 354m/83m
NASCAR, Daytona 500, n/a/20m
Baseball, World Series game five, n/a/19m
Golf, US Masters (final day), n/a/17m
Tennis, Wimbledon men's singles final, n/a/17m
Basketball, NBA finals game six, up to 1bn/17m
Cycling, Tour de France (final stage), n/a/15m
Golf, US Open (final day), n/a/10m
Golf, Ryder Cup (final day), up to 1bn/6m
Commonwealth Games, Melbourne opening ceremony, 1.5bn/5m
Cricket, ICC Champions Trophy final, n/a/3m
Source of claims: Fifa, NFL, Torino2006.org, Uefa, F1/Renault, NBA, Ryder Cup sponsors, Melbourne Commonwealth Games official website
Source of verifiable data: Initiative Sports Futures
* Verifiable equals the average programme audience who watched the whole game/match/event in 54 key surveyed markets. These 54 countries, where reliable "people-metre" data is available, include most of the world's most populous nations such as China, India, the US and Brazil, plus all major TV markets, including most of Europe. Together they comprise 75 per cent of the world's population, and 90 per cent of the world's TV households. The average programme audience is the global currency of ratings, and should be distinguished from a "peak figure", which would be typically 1.5 times higher (and include the highest number of people at any given point), and the "reach", which would be typically twice the average audience, and include anyone who watched for three minutes.
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