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The Evolution of World Cup Streaming
While more options are available today for watching World Cup games online, U.S. broadcasters have yet to embrace streaming in a way that could generate increased revenue and expand the sport's audience

I’m from France, so it’s not like a have a choice—I’m a football fan. I grew up watching football (soccer for the uninitiated) on TV, and I remember key parts of my childhood because of the association with football moments. I was 9 years old during the 1982 World Cup Semi-Final when then–West Germany shocked France with the Schumacher-Battiston incident. More positive memories came in 1984 when France won the Euro Cup against Spain, or in 1990 when my home Team Montpellier won the French Cup and I made the trip to Paris to for the final game with some friends. And I was for sure there when France won the World Cup in 1998, resulting in one of the most incredible socially unified experience I’ve ever been part of.

Since I’m a big football fan, of course I’ve been watching the World Cup for many years. I’m also into streaming media, so I’ve paid attention to how the options for watching the cup have evolved over time. With this World Cup poised to be the first that many people stream online, I want to look back at how much more limited our options used to be – and how we got to where we are now.

1994—Stanford Stadium, USA (Brazil won)

Live TV and in-person were the way

I wasn’t in the U.S. then, but my PacketVideo colleague John Driver recalls seeing multiple fender-benders around Stanford Stadium when the venue hosted World Cup matches in 1994, all because visitors from other countries weren’t used to driving on the right side of the road. John jokes that some accidents could have been avoided if we’d had streaming options available, instead of forcing people to watch in person. It’s a funny concept, but it’s true that the advent of new technologies over the years has helped more people tune into the world’s favorite sport. But 1994 was the year Netscape was founded, and even car phones (remember those?) had barely come into existence. We had a long way to go before streaming would become widespread, and we still watched World Cup matches in person or on live TV.

1998—France (France won)

Live TV still dominated

When my home country of France hosted the World Cup in 1998, we couldn’t watch the games any other way except in real time. I mean, you could record on VHS, but that was too risky for soccer: the tape had a high probability of getting stuck, or not recording, or someone might remove the tape or switch the channel while recording. And even if you did manage to tape it all, good luck seeing the ball. So we had to go to the matches or watch them on live TV, period. There were no DVRs to record games for later, or rebroadcasting of games during prime time. As I recall, that led to a lot of mysterious illnesses as people skipped work to watch day games. But it also led to great camaraderie as large groups watched live games together. And I was in the right country to watch the games in real time, so I was able to catch most matches, including the memorable championship game that resulted in France’s first World Cup title. I’ll never forget Zinedine Zidane’s two goals, even if I wasn’t able to record them myself.

2002—South Korea and Japan (Brazil won)

Time zone troubles

In 2002, I’d recently arrived in the U.S., and my World Cup experience was absolutely terrible. Due to the substantial time difference between the U.S. and the World Cup host countries, all of the matches were televised at odd hours, often in “Live Replay” which is horrendous for soccer, and there was still no good way to record games live and watch them watch later. TiVo and ReplayTV had launched fairly recently, but few people had actually DVR yet. I missed far more matches than I wanted to, and was extremely frustrated by the whole experience, especially since I knew the technology existed to support recording–it just wasn’t widespread enough. Of course, France’s elimination during the first round had nothing to do with my frustration during this Cup.

2006–Germany (Italy won)

Some DVR ability

I was still in the U.S. at this time, and the time difference with Germany remained a struggle. But it was much smaller than the difference with Japan and Korea, so I was able to get up early or stay up late for way more matches this time around. I also recorded all the matches on my DVR to watch later. But Facebook hadn’t even expanded beyond .edu email addresses (it wouldn’t do so until September 2006) and social networking wasn’t yet an integral part of our daily lives. That meant I had to communicate with friends in France about our team’s internal drama by phone or email. While it was an improvement over 2002, it couldn’t compare with actually being in France in 1998. All the more because Zidane totally lost it, delivering the headbutt that became one of the most shared memes online that summer. Even if it wasn’t yet possible to tweet it, we could watch it over and over on YouTube.

2010—South Africa (Spain won)

The advent of live streaming

South Africa was the first World Cup where reality caught up to technology. Live streaming was enabled for many matches for the first time, and I watched a lot of matches online. Still, media companies hadn’t necessarily bought in to streaming yet, and the big broadcasters tried to block streaming as much as they could. This didn’t completely prevent the streaming experience, just made it a little more complicated. It was extremely tricky to go behind firewalls and find streaming sites or streaming URL locations (not that I’d know anything about that). But it would have been even easier for broadcasters to actually enable streaming access for their customers, and make a profit from it. By 2010, social networking had become widespread, and people chatted about the Cup extensively on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms, further negating the big broadcasters’ futile efforts to discourage streaming. In fact, according to KantarSport (PDF), 3.2 billion people watched at least one minute of World Cup soccer this year, and about 1 billion saw the final match. Mobile was still in its infancy then, but ESPN Mobile TV and Univision in the U.S. (1.5 million unique visitors) combined with Telekom Deutschland (1.6 million viewers) to reach more than 3 million people on mobile.

2014—Brazil (in progress)

The first cord-cutter’s cup

This year, online streaming of the World Cup is slated to be extremely widespread for the first time. Many countries are catering to the growing trend of cord-cutting and streaming their team’s matches online for free, with the U.S. being a notable exception (ESPN is streaming games online, but you’ll need a pay-TV subscription to watch). Still, the requirement for a login isn’t insurmountable. Many people will share theirs, costing ESPN millions in revenue it could have raised if it made pay-per-game possible. And a lot of cord-cutters are discovering creative options, like Spanish-speaking Univision, that do a great job enabling free online streaming for everyone as well as bringing an unknown level of emotion to North American audiences with frequent refrains of “Gooooooooooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaal!”

Many more people in the U.S. are already watching the Cup this year than in the past. In 2006, U.S. viewing statistics (for U.S. team games on ABC and ESPN) were generally below 4 million viewers, jumping up to about 7 million for the game against Italy. In 2010, viewing jumped up to around 12 million viewers for the big US matches vs England and Ghana, but remained below 5 million for others. Already in 2014, the opening match against Ghana attracted about 11 million viewers. And keep in mind these stats are for broadcast views on ABC and ESPN, so there are many methods not accounted for. Perhaps this is the cup where U.S. viewing finally takes off.

2018—Russia

The first truly mobile cup?


While the London Olympics in 2012 were the first massively streamed Olympics, the Sochi Olympics in 2014 featured many streaming video options as well. Russia may leverage this Olympics experience and provide extensive video coverage of the matches when it hosts in 2018. The Cup will also likely continue the trend of moving into the cloud; iStreamPlanet went from 500 servers in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, to 50 in London in 2012 to none in Sochi as the cloud took over. Russia hasn’t made big promises about creative ways to broadcast the Cup, but the technology certainly exists to make it the first truly mobile Cup that people can watch from anywhere.

2022—Qatar

Anything’s possible

The 2022 World Cup is slated to take place in Qatar, which may require ambitious feats of construction and temperature control to make the country’s desert climate amenable to intense football matches. Qatar didn’t include holograms in their bid for the cup, but Japan also vied for the honor of hosting in 2022 and promised to create complete 3D video of the games, even raising the idea of putting cameras on the players themselves to offer a first-person view. A virtual 3D experience, backed by virtual reality headsets (Oculus Rift, anyone?), could provide a unique immersive experience to take the home viewing experience as close as possible to being in a stadium. I’m excited to see what they come up with in eight years.

While a 3D or VR experience would be an incredible step forward for viewers at home, it's hard to replace attending a game in person, with the tension, drama, agony, and release that only soccer can provide. And because of their relentless emotional drama, sports have been a powerful force in driving new media consumption habits. I remember when my parents bought a color TV in 1982, just before the World Cup. Just a few years ago, broadcast sports drove people to upgrade to HD once they realized the quality difference after experiencing it at friends' homes.

Soon, we’re likely to see a similar shift to 4K (UHD) resolution video devices, as the new format becomes an indispensable part of sports (and other media) experiences. The quality gain alone in the switch from 1080p to 4K may not be as immediately apparent to the typical end user as the switch to HD was, so content providers and broadcasters will have to really push for innovative use cases for 4K beyond the pure pixel count. These might include multi-screen experiences, end-user multi-camera control, virtual player point of view, and even full virtual reality 3D rendering with 4K. Whatever the option, the audio aspect of the immersive experience can’t be neglected either. There are a lot of ways that technology can be used to make one feel closer to the action–a true part of the event–and 4K is an important foundation stone in this new edifice.

The number of ways to watch the World Cup should be as diverse as the countries participating. CSPs and CEs that try to limit their customers’ viewing options are taking the wrong approach. They can’t afford not to be a part of an experience shared by 3.2 billion people.

[The is a vendor-contributed article. Streaming Media accepts content from vendors based solely upon its value to our readers.]

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