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The era of excess in sports: tournaments continue to grow in size, but will the quality improve? | Written by Sean Ingle


We are now in a time where World Cup events are comparable to a four-hour extended version of a movie: impressive but imperfect, with many unimportant parts leading up to the exciting climax. The men’s Cricket World Cup lasted 38 days and consisted of 45 matches to narrow down 10 teams to four semi-finalists – which is surprisingly 10 days longer than the entire 2022 Fifa World Cup in Qatar. In comparison, the rugby union World Cup took a month and 40 games to reduce 20 countries to eight. And there is still more to come.

By 2027, the sports of cricket and rugby union will see an increase of four teams and additional matches. The upcoming 2026 football World Cup, to be held in the US, Canada, and Mexico, is expanding greatly – from 32 teams to 48, and from 64 matches to 104. These large-scale tournaments are known as sporting mega-events, and they have a worldwide appeal that draws in millions of viewers. While events on this scale, such as the World Cup and Olympic Games, may seem impressive, is bigger always best?

The Guardian interviewed over 12 professionals in various fields such as sports leadership, broadcasting, marketing, and academia to gather insights. We also inquired about the reason behind the increasing duration of sporting events, despite claims that viewers have shorter attention spans. Additionally, we explored if certain sports are risking the success of their own popularity.

The question that naturally arises is, “Why are sports engaging in these actions?” The answer to this question is quite evident: financial gain and the opportunity to increase it even further. According to Tim Crow, a specialist in sports marketing who began his career with the Test and County Cricket Board (now known as the England and Wales Cricket Board) and played a crucial role in the marketing of the 2012 London Olympics, the primary objective for those in charge of sports is to generate more revenue. This is a simple fact. Additionally, the more content that is made available to television networks, the more favorable the terms of any deal will be.

Without a doubt, the economy is the primary factor. During the World Cup cycle from 2019 to 2022, Fifa earned a total revenue of $7.5 billion, its most profitable cycle yet. A significant portion of this, $6 billion, came from the tournament in Qatar alone. The organization is aware of its guaranteed viewership and is taking advantage by considering the addition of more games to further increase its profits.

One of the major benefits of sports is its ability to maintain a consistent and dedicated television audience. In the United States, 94 of the top 100 TV ratings in 2022 were for sports. In the UK, the most viewed program of the previous year was England’s World Cup quarter-final against France, with 16.1 million viewers, surpassing even major events such as the Queen’s state funeral, platinum jubilee, and I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!

In a society where there is intense competition for viewership on various platforms such as streaming services, YouTube, and TikTok, sports stands out as a unique source of cultural significance and shared moments.

Charles Beall, the vice-president of digital strategy at the international corporation IMG, states that “sport holds unparalleled influence in the ongoing competition for attention. High-quality live sports will consistently stand out, provide value to audiences and platforms, and draw in and maintain viewers.”

Several sports also focus on the idea of “growing the game”, and expanding World Cups provides them with the opportunity to do so. However, there may also be a defensive aspect to this approach. Nowadays, most viewers are primarily interested in big, high-profile events. They do not have the time to closely follow the details of every sport. A World Cup serves as a showcase and a way to quickly convey the significance of an event – so why not make it longer?

However, there are some individuals who do not view this current trend positively. A highly respected individual shared with the Guardian their concern that certain sports are jeopardizing themselves by having an excessive amount of unimportant matches that exhaust players and leave fans disinterested. “The next time you encounter Gianni Infantino, inquire about when Fifa plans to reach 206 teams for the World Cup,” they stated. “It’s taking things to an extreme.”

You can see his point. Sport is supposed to be about unpredictability and jeopardy. But the recent qualifiers for Euro 2024 in Germany had very little of either. And while the men’s Cricket World Cup had some stunning upsets – Afghanistan beating England and the Netherlands toppling South Africa – its prolonged group stage dramatically lowered the value of such victories, and the startling lack of close matches didn’t help either.

Lionel Messi of Argentina lifts the trophy after the 2022 World Cup final.

Could the lack of enthusiasm have impacted TV viewership? It is possible. It is reported that Sky’s ratings were lower than anticipated, but the company has attributed this to England’s underwhelming performance.

Unfortunately, Ed Warner, who previously served as the chair of UK Athletics, believes that the current situation in India with partially filled stadiums is a concern for other countries as well. During his time with UKA, Warner recalls the BBC stressing the importance of selling out events, stating that empty stadiums can be a turn-off for viewers. He questions why viewers should bother watching if no one is interested enough to attend in person.

The Rugby World Cup, which had sold-out crowds, did not encounter similar problems. However, the group stages were not as exciting as the knockout stages. Out of 40 games, only eight had a margin of seven points or less between teams, and the average winning margin in the pool stages was almost 32 points. Fiji was the only unexpected team among the eight quarter-finalists.

Do fans care about competitive balance? Surprisingly, no, according to Dr. Robbie Butler, an economist at University College Cork. He states that there is substantial research indicating that across various sports, supporters are not concerned about the fairness of competitions. This has been observed in sports such as Formula One, tennis, golf, and boxing in recent years. In their recent study on Formula One, a sport dominated by two teams since 2010, they found that US fans were not driven to watch due to increased competition and were content with seeing Lewis Hamilton or Max Verstappen win consistently.

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David Forrest, a well-known economist from the University of Liverpool, has also extensively discussed the influence of popular figures over uncertainty in terms of TV viewership. However, Crow, who currently serves on the International Olympic Committee’s esports committee, argues that sports should not underestimate the interest of young fans in unpredictable outcomes.

The game show Jeopardy is highly appealing to young people, according to the speaker. In esports, there is a noticeable contrast in viewership between matches that are expected to be one-sided and those between top teams. Similarly, pay-per-view boxing and combat sports are also favored by younger audiences. The risk and danger associated with these activities are what make them particularly enticing to this demographic.

What could potentially occur in the future? Crow predicts that the increasing popularity of large-scale sporting events may result in the exclusion of smaller events. He believes that there may be several currently popular sports that will face significant challenges and potentially even disappear from the top tier of competition.

Events such as British & Irish Lions tours have ‘scarcity value’, says Charles Beall, VP of digital strategy at IMG.

Crow is hesitant to reveal the specific sports he is referring to, as it could potentially offend his colleagues. However, by examining their revenue and profit trends, as well as their fan base, it is not difficult to determine which sports he is discussing.

According to Beall, a specialist in evolving audience patterns, it is incorrect to claim that younger individuals have shorter attention spans when it comes to sports. Instead, due to the constant accessibility of phones and the internet, they are bombarded with endless options competing for their attention. Beall asserts that modern audiences will not tolerate boredom and can easily switch to something else, leading to the trend of shorter sports formats.

According to Beall, this trend is expected to continue and he believes that sports must adapt their marketing and sales strategies in order to keep up. He explains that short periods of time, such as waiting in line or during a previously unoccupied journey, can now be used for entertainment, as seen with the popularity of TikTok and its short-form content. Beall suggests that sports should continue to innovate in areas such as competition format, production elements like vertical feeds, multiscreen content, customized localization, in-stadium technology and data, and increased interaction with influencers. One successful example of this is the Manningcast featuring Peyton and Eli Manning.

However, similar to others interviewed by the Guardian, Beall also acknowledges the importance of enduring sports. He states, “All sports must be aware of oversaturation.” The Ryder Cup, Olympics, and Lions Rugby hold a unique status due to their limited availability, which draws in a large following during pivotal moments.

In simpler terms, take care of the valuable resource, but be cautious not to harm it.

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Source: theguardian.com