Whatever your view on whether the 2022 football world cup should have been awarded to the state of Qatar, if you have a passing interest in football, you are likely to engage with the upcoming event, beginning on November 20th and running through to the final on December 18th. There will of course be some fans who will refuse to participate, this in protest to the Qatari’s record, on amongst other things, the treatment of foreign workers and the LGBTQ community. This article has no intention of addressing those issues, although in full disclosure I will be travelling to, and attending the event in Qatar as a supporter.
Major sporting events are huge, global and are highly anticipated, even if your team or nation is not involved, and they do not get much bigger than the FIFA World Cup. From a broadcaster perspective, despite the chaos it can bring to the usual schedule over a four-week period, you would prefer to have the rights to it rather than not, the alternative being to try to counter its presence if you’ve not got access. It is also perhaps worth pointing out that this event remains, albeit not exclusively, in the grip of Free to Air broadcasters and quite often national Public Service Media organisations.
Despite the growth in time shifted and on demand consumption, sport along with news remains a live broadcast viewing event, and with local Doha kick off times of 1pm, 4pm, 7pm and 10pm, it also offers convenient viewing times for much of the world. So how does a month of unrivalled live viewing impact the journey towards VOD that everyone has been on? Opportunity or hindrance? Does this differ whether you have the rights or not?
This time a further layer of confusion and consideration exists, as most major sporting events usually take place in the (northern hemisphere) summer when programme schedules have traditionally been weaker, ahead of the stronger Autumn offering, which it is now right in the middle of. Will broadcasters risk scheduling episodes at differing times, even allowing for the certainty of schedule disruption that the knock-out stages will bring?
So returning to my initial question of whether for the VOD world this is an opportunity or hindrance?
In my mind the answer is opportunity - but only if they take active control of the situation and market as such. Failure to do so will make them vulnerable to not just short-term set-back but could also have a longer-term negative impact.
Let me break the situation down further, as I feel as though there are potentially three audience groups across this period that we need to address:
The football REJECTORS (not to be confused with Qatar World Cup protesters, although this group could fall within it). This group will go out of their way to find alternative viewing to the World Cup.
The football COMMITTED. Viewing to the World Cup and associated material will shape their daily routine with no time for anything else.
The football ACCOMMODATORS. This group will watch football, especially the ‘big’ matches, but their viewing selections will also travel outside of this content to ensure that they satisfy their usual demands of TV content across many genres.
This may not be the best way as to how one could label these three groups, however I do think that they loosely sum up most households. It is though fair to say that household dynamics will play a part in how true to form these groups will be, with differing family members seeking alternative pathways.
Now that I have defined the groups, how do we best ensure that the VOD offering, SVOD or otherwise continues to progress?
I think it is fair to say that PAY VOD services are most at risk during this period. As we have seen recently, the proliferation of SVOD services has given the consumer so much extra content choice which has led to a de-polarisation in the uptake of such services. This together with the ‘cost of living’ crises affecting so many households, across many countries, have dramatically increased the elasticity of demand for these. A switch off amongst the COMMITTED and ACCOMMODATORS as defined above, even if initially planned just to cover the World Cup period, is likely to cause an ongoing negative financial legacy as the usual ‘economics of apathy’ are more likely to be overcome at such a time. This is likely to result in continued de-subscription long after the World Cup is over. If there was ever a need for SVOD services to hit the marketing button, either paid for, and certainly within their owned media it is now. For this to have the greatest effect then strong content is essential, and I’m sure that Netflix will see their usual November launch of The Crown has being a big bonus for them.
As with many clouds there is often a ‘silver lining;’ the football REJECTORS should be seen as low-hanging fruit in this situation either to drive new subscriptions or to increase frequency of usage, and subsequent loyalty amongst existing subscribers to help reduce churn in the future.
Broadcast VOD (BVOD) platforms, whose service tends to be in conjunction with a linear offering need to be just as cautious, but with the possibility of a greater up-side than their SVOD competitors. It is easier to analyse this sector by each of my three audience groups.
For the REJECTORS the rules are quite straight forward. Whether you have the World Cup broadcast rights or not, the opportunity to market ‘alternative’ content is huge and essential. Although BVOD platforms are mostly trying to move their positioning away from one of ‘Catch Up’ to one of ‘Content Discovery,’ a little marketing realism should be allowed back in at such a time to reflect the needs of this audience. It is also essential that all resources are used to their full, including on-platform marketing assets to reach the audience once you get them there. Too many times do we at JWM see missed opportunities to ‘speak’ effectively to audiences in this mode, hence undoing the work and undermining the resource taken to navigate them there in the first place.
For most non-World Cup rights holders, the task to engage with the COMMITTED is a tough one, and almost impossible if they have no editorial associated World Cup material to try to attract the core football viewer. Not having rights does not of course mean that they cannot engage with the tournament, they just need to create from scratch their own relevant content whether it be fan-zone activity, World Cup fantasy football content or anything else, quite often celebrity led. A challenging task but certainly not an impossible one. Having the rights to content of course affords a broadcaster with so much editorial spin off material, whether it be highlights, deep analyses, podcasts (video or audio) and in general a much firmer base to drag in the COMMITTED viewer even further into its content. BVOD can provide a platform for exclusive material which otherwise would not see the light of day, not just satisfying this group during the tournament, but one would hope beyond it as well. The even better news for such platforms is that its marketing of such content can be both free and extremely powerful as in programme / in match references are a very strong endorsement.
Finally we come to the ACCOMMODATORS. These are the group who do appreciate the football, but also do not want to miss their routine favourites or new content that they would normally seek out. So whilst Germany vs Spain will be a must watch for them, less so Canada vs Morocco. So whilst they may not be in the market for a new Pay service, they are definitely up for spreading their wings to find alternative viewing – as well as a way to catch up on the favourites that the football schedule has disrupted. Whether you have the football rights or not then these are an audience for you. This group are all in the market for choice, alternative viewing and catch up. Again as with the REJECTORS – once you get the audience onto the service make sure you use all assets on that platform to keep them there, or to bring them back again; too often VOD platforms are ‘content warehouses’ with no signposting to help navigate you through.
So yes, a rather simple analyses of how I see the various audiences responding during the upcoming 4 weeks of national schedules being dictated by live football, and no doubt what actually happens on the pitch (and maybe off it) will dictate the numbers that will fall into each of these groups, or movement between them.
In summary the FIFA World Cup is too big a beast to ignore, and it is essential for every broadcaster and VOD platform, however they are funded, whether they have associated linear channels or not, or whether they have the football broadcast rights or not, to take marketing action to exploit the audience opportunity that exists, as well as to protect themselves in both the short and longer term. The tournament may be only 4 weeks in length, the impact upon VOD services could be much longer.
Alan James ,November 2022