A controversy has developed around this year’s World Cup in Qatar. From allegations of bribery and fraud in awarding the tournament to the tiny, wealthy Middle Eastern nation, to criticism of Qatar’s persecution of its LGBTQ+ community and its treatment of migrant workers
But judging by the viewership figures after the first week of play, the critical coverage hasn’t hurt the ratings much.
In the US, Fox Sports and Telemundo, which will broadcast the tournament in English and Spanish respectively, got off to a strong start. The opening game on Sunday between hosts Qatar and Ecuador was watched live by an average of around 7 million people on both channels. An average of 4 million tuned in to the Spanish-language broadcasts on Telemundo, Peacock and Telemundo Deportes digital platforms, a 164 percent increase from the 2018 World Cup opener between Russia and Saudi Arabia. English language viewership on Fox increased 78 percent from 2018, with a peak of 3.5 million viewers of the game compared to 1.7 million viewers of the opening game in 2018.
But things really took off when the United States played on Monday. Almost 12 million viewers on Fox and Telemundo watched the 1-1 draw with Wales, with an average of 8.3 million watching Fox on its broadcast and digital platforms and 3.4 million watching on the Spanish language service.
Tuesday’s game between Mexico and Poland drew an average of 4.6 million viewers for Telemundo and Peacock across all platforms.
Fox has been careful to avoid any criticism of host country Qatar, with on-air presenters ignoring any controversial issues. Fox has a sponsorship deal with a sponsorship deal with Qatar Airways and several Visit Qatar tourism spots ran during the channel’s World Cup coverage, but Fox has denied that its sponsorship deals affect its coverage.
North of the border, Canada’s opening game against Belgium attracted an average of 3.7 million viewers on sports channel TSN, the main CTV network and the French-language RDS channel.
TSN parent company Bell Media says audiences made the game the most-watched World Cup group stage game of all time, citing overnight data from Numeris (Canada’s Nielsen). The last time Canada attended a World Cup was in 1988. The opener was the second most-watched sports broadcast of the year in Canada, behind only Super Bowl LVI.
In all, the game drew 8.9 million viewers, or around one in four Canadians, who watched some or all of the live broadcast, which ended in a 1-0 win for Belgium.
All-sports network TSN avoided discussions of human rights in Qatar and other controversies, but CTV news anchor Omar Sachedina was on hand in Doha to cover political stories, including migrant workers and restrictions on football fans visiting the W5 -CTV Show’s November 26 newscast will include a section examining the World Cup host country, including discrimination and abuse concerns in oil-rich Qatar, ahead of the tournament.
In the UK, the BBC has taken a stronger stance on Qatari issues, shifting coverage of Sunday’s opening ceremony from its main channel in favor of a human rights message presented by presenter Gary Lineker.
But that position doesn’t seem to dampen Britain’s appetite for World Cup football. A peak figure of 8 million tuned in to the BBC to see England beat Iran 6-2 in their first game of the competition on Monday. While ratings for the team’s opening game against Tunisia at the 2018 World Cup in Russia – which peaked at 18.6 million – fell significantly, it should be noted that this game was played in the evening while the Iran game was well outside of the Prime time aired at 1pm in the UK. Another 8 million people streamed the game on iPlayer on Monday, according to the BBC.
With a primetime slot at 7pm on Friday and against their centuries-old opponents, England’s game against USA should prove to be a much bigger draw, although the total could be unknown due to expected large pub crowds.
Meanwhile, Wales, who are participating in a World Cup for the first time since 1958, have beaten their local rivals in terms of audiences, with a peak of around 13million watching their stubborn 1-1 clash with USA on ITV (a number which no doubt helped until kick-off at 19:00).
When England and Wales finally meet at 19:00 on Tuesday 29 November, the evening pitch and the fact that the two neighbors have never met in a World Cup before should become a ratings goldmine for the BBC .
In Germany, on the other hand, where the official World Cup broadcasters ARD and ZDF reported extensively on human rights violations in Qatar and calls for a boycott of the tournament, the number of viewers has so far fallen sharply compared to previous World Cups.
The German team’s surprise 2-1 defeat by Japan on Wednesday drew just 9.2 million viewers to ARD, although the early kick-off time – 2pm in Germany – may also have played a role. The audience was a fraction of the nearly 26 million who watched Germany’s opening game of the 2018 World Cup in Russia (which also saw the team lose 1-0 to Mexico).
The opening game on Sunday, in which hosts Qatar lost 2-0 to Ecuador, only attracted 6.2 million German viewers on ZDF. For comparison: More than 10 million Germans watched the opening match between Russia and Saudi Arabia at the 2018 World Cup.
In the pre-game team photo, the German players covered their mouths in a silent protest against football’s governing body FIFA, which had threatened to sanction players for wearing a rainbow-colored ‘OneLove’ armband as part of a campaign to raise awareness of LGBTQ+ rights. Consensual relationships between members of the same sex are illegal in Qatar. FIFA claims the armband violates the ban on ‘political symbols’.
“Even without an armband, our position stands,” says the official tweet from the German Football Association (DFB) with a photo of the players covering their mouths. “We wanted to set an example for values that we live in the national team: diversity and mutual respect. Together with other nations raise our voice. This is not about a political message: human rights are non-negotiable.”
With our captain’s armband, we wanted to set an example for values that we live in the national team: diversity and mutual respect. Be loud together with other nations. This is not about a political message: human rights are non-negotiable. 1/2 pic.twitter.com/v9ngfv0ShW
— DFB Team (@DFB_Team) November 23, 2022
While German players did not wear the OneLove armband, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser proudly wore hers as she watched the game and sat next to FIFA President Gianni Infantino.
The OneLove controversy has already cost Germany dearly: one of the national team’s sponsors, the supermarket chain Rewe, canceled its contract with the German Football Association after the team bowed to FIFA’s demands to drop the armband.
“We stand for diversity and football is also diverse,” said Rewe boss Lionel Souque in a statement. “FIFA’s scandalous behavior is totally unacceptable to me as the CEO of a diverse company and also as a football fan.”
After Germany’s defeat by Japan, some local media blamed the OneLove armband debate and the team’s pre-game protest.
“There was too much drama leading up to it, too many issues that were more important than football, much like four years ago [when Germany went out in the first round], said the former German captain and world champion of 1990 Lothar Matthäus in the tabloid Bild. “Something like that disrupts concentration, it distracts – and with it maybe the crucial five or ten percent.”
There was little protest or controversy over Japanese public broadcaster NHK, which, despite kicking off for Japan at 10pm, garnered an impressive 40.6 percent market share in Tokyo for its coverage of the Germany-Japan game. Millions more watched the game on streaming platform Abema, with peak viewership surpassing a record 10 million on Wednesday, according to parent company CyberAgent Inc.
There was also no sign of protest when reining world champions France took the field for their opening game against Australia on Tuesday. Les Bleus also had no problem attracting a home crowd. According to figures from ratings group Médiamétrie, 12.53 million locals tuned into national broadcaster TF1 to see the French side beat Australia 4-1, a crowd that watched the 12.59 million viewers who watched France’s opening game also beat Australia, pursued in Russia 2018, was level.
Alex Ritman in London and Etan Vlessing in Toronto contributed to this report.