Millions Tune In as 2022 FIFA World Cup Kicks Off in Qatar
The 2022 FIFA World Cup kicked off over the weekend in Qatar, bringing together audiences from around the world and marking the start of one of the largest and most-anticipated events in all of sports. Over 50 matches will be played between the 32 qualifying teams, with the final game scheduled for December 18 at Lusail Stadium, the biggest stadium in Qatar. This year’s World Cup is expected to be watched by more than five billion people globally, surpassing the 2018 World Cup viewership record of 3.5 billion viewers. Already, the early matches are drawing record viewership, with the World Cup opener between Qatar and Ecuador recording a TV audience of 7.2 million viewers in the U.S. across Fox and Telemundo. For brands, the World Cup represents a unique opportunity to engage with fans of the game and the global community across digital, streaming, social, sponsorship, athlete partnerships, and more.
The World Cup will be watched by 36X more people than the Super Bowl, as billions of soccer fans are expected to tune into the tournament over the next few weeks.
This year’s World Cup is charged with controversy and geopolitical tension as Qatar faces criticism over human rights abuses and its treatment of women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and migrant workers.
Brands, whether official sponsors or on the sidelines of the event, should be culturally sensitive and authentic in their messaging to fans around the World Cup, says PMG’s Shelina Taki, senior director of strategy and insights, as it’s important to understand both the cultural context and global influence of soccer and the tournament.
The environment surrounding this year’s World Cup is charged with controversy and geopolitical tension, as Qatar faces criticism over human rights abuses, its treatment of women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and migrant workers. According to Front Office Sports, tournament organizers have pushed for reforms and the development of new rules. Officials have firmly stated that “everyone is welcome to the country,” but there have been restrictions imposed early in the tournament that have caught fans and players off guard. During the first week of the tournament, FIFA officials warned European teams that they would be penalized for their plans to wear “OneLove” armbands in support of LGBTQ+ rights during the tournament. The teams have since walked back on their plans and have released a joint statement criticizing the FIFA decision.
FIFA World Cup sponsor Budweiser had to quickly remove alcohol from concession stands across the eight World Cup stadiums after Qatar officials announced a last-minute ban on alcoholic beer before the tournament began. CNN Business reported that while the decision “throws a wrench” into the brand’s marketing plans in Qatar, Budweiser’s TV and social ad investments will not be affected.
“For brands engaging with soccer fans during the tournament, any brand messaging needs to be authentic, reflective of brand values, and culturally sensitive,” said Shelina Taki, senior director of strategy and insights at PMG. “In short, brands will benefit most by focusing on people rather than product.”
Soccer is embedded in all aspects of pop culture, from fashion to music, as popular players are heralded as celebrities in their own right. Many, like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, boast bigger social follower counts than Kylie Jenner, Selena Gomez, and other celebrities across digital platforms. Soccer remains the most popular and diverse sport in the world, with an estimated five billion fans and 250 million players globally. Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa represent the largest fan bases. However, popularity in the U.S. is skyrocketing, especially as video games and TV shows like the EA Sports FIFA series and Ted Lasso on AppleTV+ earn global fame and introduce more people to the sport.
Recently, Google search trends recorded a 33 percent year-over-year increase in soccer-related searches. On TikTok, #soccer totals 192 billion views, and #futbol boasts 176.8 billion views, not to mention the hundreds of other hashtags on the platform that are associated with soccer. Video trends and social platforms like TikTok and Twitter continue to make watching soccer highlights, memes, and athlete content more accessible. According to Morning Consult, “About one in three adults (32 percent) now consider themselves to be soccer fans—and that group is younger and more diverse than the general U.S. sports fan, pointing to a promising future for the sport in America.”
Big wins, upsets, and plenty of viral moments are all to be expected during tournament play over the next few weeks, and billions of fans will be watching and weighing in on every moment of action. Global Web Index estimates that 65 percent of Gen Z and Millennials will follow the World Cup tournament, with 78 percent of Gen Z planning to watch entire games live versus waiting for highlights.
Due to the extreme heat that characterizes summers in Qatar, the tournament was rescheduled to the winter months, meaning that this year’s World Cup matches will compete for viewership amid a packed schedule of regular-season sporting events, holiday gatherings, and more seasonal activities. Heading into the Thanksgiving weekend, World Cup matches will stack up against college and NFL football games in the U.S., with Fox and Telemundo expecting roughly 120 million viewers to tune in across the various American football and World Cup soccer games on the schedule. Match highlights, commentary, and memes will likely account for the majority of user-generated content, while both official and non-official brand sponsors weigh in on the state of play during the World Cup with creative executions, brand messages, and reaction content that builds off the hype generated by the tournament.
With the 2026 FIFA World Cup jointly hosted by 16 cities across North America, soccer will only grow more popular among U.S. audiences in the coming months and years, as this year’s tournament serves as a great opportunity for brands to engage soccer fans worldwide and join in the fun of cheering on both fan favorites and the underdogs.
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For more insight into how brands are engaging soccer fans during the 2022 FIFA World Cup, check out commentary by PMG’s Shelina Taki in Fast Company.
Posted by Shelina Taki
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