When some two and a half months ago I was writing a post here about how unlikely it was that Qatar would be awarded the right to host the World Cup in 2022, probably many sports fans hadn’t even have been aware that Qatar was actually competing at all. Since last week, things have changed. With the decision of the FIFA Executive Committee, I was proven wrong and all of sudden everybody learned about the plans of Qatar to stage the event.
Ever since that decision pro Qatar and the one to give the tournament in 2018 to Russia, which came just minutes earlier, especially in some of those countries that lost the bid, soccer fans and media have been fuming and building some more or less sound conspiracy theories.
Yes, both Qatar and Russia have a certain richness based on natural resources. Yes, both of them supported those with the power within the FIFA organization in the past when they were trying to keep or cement their power.
I have no idea if this played a role in the decision making process, but even if it did: Were things any different in the past? Would Atlanta have become host of the Olympics if it wasn’t the city in which the Coca-Cola headquarters are located? Would Germany and South Africa have hosted the last two World Cups if there wouldn’t have been any tit-for-tat deals between the voters?
So let’s get over it and pretend that all this did not play a decisive role: Why else would FIFA award the right to host a World Cup to a very small country without any significant soccer culture?
I think that from a marketing perspective, FIFA was taking a decision between improving the product and extending the reach.
Let’s look at the product first:
If the World Cup takes place in one of the traditional soccer countries, like it was in Germany in 2006, like it will be in Brazil 2014 or like it would have been in e.g. England in 2018, you will see full stadiums and the traditional soccer atmosphere. This looks and sounds good on TV, especially when the hosts are playing. However, that is only the case in a maximum of 7 out of 64 matches.
I’ve been to a couple of World Cup matches, including a final. I’ve also been to some of the big rivalries in association soccer, and as far as the pure atmosphere the spectators create is concerned, I would pick Boca vs. River, Celtic vs. Rangers or Fenerbahce vs. Galatasaray over a World Cup final anytime. If you take a look at how the tickets at the tournament are distributed, that’s no surprise.
No matter where the World Cup will take place, people will travel there and stadiums will be packed. If they aren’t, lowering the prices will help (ticket sales are only a small fraction of the overall revenue stream of the tournament – TV rights and sponsor money are way more important). Even in South Africa, which is pretty far from both South America and Western Europe, where most of the traditional soccer countries are located, stadiums were filled, so the loss in product quality you get from going to – in a soccer sense – exotic countries is rather limited.
So let’s speak about reach.
How much more market share can FIFA gain in Western Europe, where everybody is watching the tournament anyway and where there is no real competition coming from any other sport? Right, not too much. The World Cup is practically in a monopoly situation there, and people will watch it, no matter if the broadcast is coming from Spain, Qatar or the Fiji Islands.
In South Africa, which is huge rugby country, there was more to be won. Now Qatar may look like a small market, but it’s not.
Just like the last World Cup was considered the World Cup of all Africa, the one in 2022 will be considered the one of the whole Middle East region and it may even resonate in neighboring markets like India. There’s a lot more to be won for FIFA there than anywhere in e.g. Western Europe.
So yes, it was an unusual, and maybe also an unexpected decision and the character of the tournament will be completely different from the ones before.
But from a purely economical perspective, it may be one that makes sense.