WWe’ve entered an era where World Cup tournaments feel like the equivalent of a four-hour director’s cut: brilliant but flawed, with too many throwaway scenes before the thrilling conclusion. The Men’s Cricket World Cup took 38 days and 45 matches to turn 10 teams into four semi-finalists – which was, astonishingly, 10 days longer than the entire 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. Meanwhile, rugby union’s equivalent took a month and 40 games to win eight from 20 countries. And yet we haven’t seen anything yet.
In 2027 there will be four more teams and even more games in cricket and rugby union. The 2026 World Cup in the USA, Canada and Mexico will be super-sized: from 32 to 48 teams and from 64 to 104 games. Academics have an umbrella term for tournaments so big that millions around the world are drawn to them: sports mega-events. Think about world championships. Think about the Olympics. Think big, big, big. But is big always better?
To find out, the Guardian spoke to more than a dozen experts in sports leadership, broadcasting, marketing and science. As an aside, we also wondered why, in a time when we’re constantly told that viewers’ attention spans are getting shorter, why are we seeing a growth spurt in the length of sporting events? And do some sports even risk killing the golden goose?
The obvious question is: “Why does sport do this?” – also has a clear answer: cash and the chance to get much more out of it. “The most important KPI (Key Performance Indicator) for sports officials is to generate more money,” says Tim Crow, who began his career at the Test and County Cricket Board, now the England and Wales Cricket Board, and later became a key figure behind the marketing of the 2012 London Olympics. “It’s that simple. And the more inventory you provide to television, the better your business will be.”
Of course it’s the economy, stupid. Fifa generated total revenue of $7.5 billion in the World Cup cycle between 2019 and 2022, the most profitable in its history, with the Qatar tournament alone bringing in $6 billion. It knows it has a captive audience. So why not offer even more games and benefit from the advantages?
The sport also has the great advantage of having a remarkably loyal television audience. In the US, for example, sports accounted for 94 of the top 100 television ratings in 2022. In the UK, England’s World Cup quarter-final against France was last year’s most-watched show with 16.1 million viewers, ahead of the Queen’s State Funeral, the Platinum Jubilee and I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!
Especially in a world where there’s so much competition for attention — from streaming services, YouTube, TikTok and more — and where we’re all watching far fewer TV shows, sports offer something rare: cultural touchstones and shared experiences.
As Charles Beall, vice president of digital strategy at global giant IMG, puts it: “The power of sport in this ever-growing battle for attention is unmatched. And premium live sport will always prevail, adding value to viewers and platforms and attracting and retaining viewers.”
Many sports also like to talk about “growing the game,” which the expansion of the World Cup will certainly enable them to do. But perhaps there is sometimes a defensive measure in all of this. Most spectators are now “major event organizers”. We don’t have the time to follow all the sports. A World Cup serves as a showcase and symbol that an event is important – so why not make it longer?
But not everyone thinks this latest trend is a good thing. One very senior person told the Guardian that he feared some sports were risking becoming “over-the-top” and “going off the cliff” with too many meaningless games that would flog players and bore fans. “The next time you see Gianni Infantino, ask him: ‘When do you think FIFA can have 206 teams for the World Cup?'” he said. “It is reductio ad absurdum.”
You can understand his point of view. Sports should be about unpredictability and danger. But the recent qualifiers for Euro 2024 in Germany had very little of either. And while there were some stunning upsets in the men’s Cricket World Cup – Afghanistan beating England and the Netherlands defeating South Africa – the extended group stage dramatically reduced the value of such victories, and the shocking lack of close games didn’t help either.
Did the lack of suspense affect television audiences? Perhaps. It is believed that Sky’s viewing figures did not perform as well as expected, but internally this is being put down to England’s poor campaign.
But Ed Warner, former chairman of UK Athletics, says the lack of full stadiums in India should serve as a broader warning. “When I was at UKA, the BBC always told us that it was crucial that our events sold out,” says Warner. “They said people would switch off when they see empty stadiums. If no one cares enough to go, why should viewers bother?”
There were no such problems at the Rugby World Cup, which was played in front of a sell-out crowd. But while the knockout round was riveting, the group stage was anything but exciting. Only eight out of 40 games ended with a score of seven or less between the teams, while the average winning margin across the group stages was almost 32 points. Of the eight quarter-finalists, only Fiji surprised.
Does the lack of competitive balance matter to fans? Surprisingly not, according to Dr. Robbie Butler, economist at University College Cork. “There is a significant amount of literature that suggests that supporters of different sports do not care whether the competitions are balanced,” he says. “In recent years this has been seen in sports such as Formula 1, tennis, golf and boxing. Our recent work on Formula 1 – a sport dominated by two teams since 2010 – found that US fans were not motivated to watch due to increasing competition and were happy to see a dominant victory from Lewis Hamilton or Max Verstappen.”
Another prominent economist, David Forrest of the University of Liverpool, has also written convincingly and extensively about how celebrity power trumps uncertainty when it comes to television audiences. But Crow, who now works as an esports business consultant, says it would be wrong in sports to assume that young fans don’t care about danger.
“Jeopardy is incredibly attractive to young people,” he says. “In e-sports you can tell the difference by the level of attention whether a game is a walkover or two top teams competing against each other. But pay-per-view boxing and martial arts are also very popular among young people. They are disproportionately attracted to it because of the danger.”
So what could happen next? According to Crow, the growth of larger sports mega-events will likely result in others being crowded out. “I think we’re going to see several sports that are pretty big really struggling now,” he says. “And in some cases they are likely to disappear from the top tier map.”
Crow refuses to say what sports he’s talking about because he might upset the people he works with. “But it doesn’t take much to figure out who they are when you look at their sales, profits and fan base.”
Meanwhile, Beall, an expert on changing viewing trends, says people are wrong when they say younger sports have limited attention spans. Rather, with cell phones and the Internet so readily available, they have endless ways to compete for their attention. “The audience doesn’t tolerate boredom,” he says. “They can switch much more easily and that is the reason for the shortening of sports formats.”
Beall expects this to continue – and he says sports will have to adapt the way they market and sell their sport to keep up. “Now every small window of time can be an entertainment moment: waiting in a queue or on a trip that would otherwise be empty is time wasted,” he says, pointing to TikTok’s particular success in providing short-form content. “Sports must continue to innovate in all areas, from competition format to production elements such as vertical feeds, multi-screen content, custom localization, in-stadium technology and data, and more interactivity with influencers – Manningcast by Peyton and Eli Manning is a good example. “
But like many others the Guardian spoke to, Beall recognizes the value of sports that have stood the test of time. “All sports need to be aware of oversaturation,” he says. “The Ryder Cup, the Olympic Games and Lions Rugby receive their ‘special status’ precisely because they have a rarity value that attracts great fan interest at crucial moments.”
In other words, nurture the golden goose – but don’t risk killing it.
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