CORRECTIONS AND CLARIFICATIONS: An earlier version of this story stated 14% the men’s World Cup should be held every two years. The correct number should be 14% every three years.
It is hardly a surprise that FIFA members are a greedy bunch, caring about nothing so long as it means more money in their Swiss bank accounts. Their latest idea for a money grab shows they’re stupid and short-sighted, too.
By playing the men’s World Cup every two years rather than every four, FIFA risks diluting the appeal of the world’s most popular sporting event. Worse, it would choke off an as-yet-untapped revenue source that could generate billions in the next couple of decades, the women’s World Cup.
FIFA insists this is only a proposal, with no “predetermined objectives.” But the volume with which the plan is being touted shows how badly it wants it – and what a bad gamble it is.
On Thursday, FIFA published results from a survey it said showed “the majority of fans” favor more frequent men’s World Cups. But if you looked at the response to the survey’s more specific question of how often fans want the World Cup, the status quo wins out.
The survey found 45% favored keeping the men’s World Cup as an every four year event while 30% said it should be every two years. Another 14% said it should be held every three years and 11% said the World Cup should be a yearly event.
These opinions were consistent across every age group – contrary to FIFA’s claim that younger fans are clamoring for a biennial men’s World Cup.
“I hope they will come to their senses,” Aleksander Ceferin, the president of UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, told The Times of London last week. “… We would be killing football.”
But it’s been a long time since FIFA cared more about soccer than the profits it generates. Which is why it’s so mind-boggling that FIFA members are pushing this.
Part of what makes World Cup so special is its rarity. Fans spend the three years between World Cups tracking national teams, wondering which up-and-coming players will make an impact and worrying whether aging favorites can make one more run.
When the tournament finally arrives, it’s like a six-week Carnivale. The host country is filled with thousands of fans merrily traipsing from city to city, spending thousands and thousands of dollars as they go. Those who don’t travel schedule long lunches or days off around games. The winner, as well as those countries that did well, get bragging rights for four years.
If the men’s World Cup is every other year, it eventually becomes just another event. Why bother watching, or going, when there’s another one right around the corner? The uniqueness that sponsors and broadcasters currently pay billions for is gone.
Or, as Ceferin cautioned in his interview with The Times, “Two would not bring double the amount of revenues.”
If FIFA has doubts about this, it need only look at Major League Baseball’s interleague play.
When interleague began in 1997, it was a spectacular success. Chicago fans who could only see the Cubs and White Sox play each other if both teams made the World Series – a unicorn sighting was more likely at the time – buzzed about the city grudge match.
But as the novelty wore off, so did interleague’s appeal. By 2017, 20 years after interleague play began, The Ringer found that attendance had “dropped considerably since 2013, to the point where it isn’t much different than the average attendance for a typical major league game.”
Sure, the Kansas City Royals drew 30,000-plus for their first two games against the St. Louis Cardinals last month. But they didn’t top 15,000 for any of their three July games against the Cincinnati Reds. Even the draw for Cubs-White Sox at Wrigley Field was comparable to that of the Cardinals there.
The proposal for a biennial men’s World Cup, crafted by longtime Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, also makes no mention of the women’s World Cup. But given Wenger’s idea would have continental tournaments, like the European championship, take place in the alternate years, the women’s World Cup would wind up being pushed to the side.
Which is so very on brand for FIFA.
What the crusty old men of FIFA don’t understand, however, is that the women’s World Cup is a fiscal bonanza waiting to happen. The women’s game is exploding in popularity across the global, despite the indifference of soccer’s governing body.
FIFA has no idea what the women’s tournament even generates because its rights are packaged along with the men’s, the Wall Street Journal reported in 2019. The organizers of the 2019 tournament in France did almost no promotion ahead of or even during the event.
Yet advertisers paid almost $100 million for ads on U.S. broadcasts alone, the WSJ reported – a figure that was more than double an earlier projection, mind you. FIFA estimates the global audience topped 1 billion. And a report by the French Football Federation and organizers found the 2019 World Cup contributed $322 million to the gross domestic product.
Clearly, there is more money to be made from the World Cup. But FIFA is looking at the wrong one to do it. And it’s going to ruin both events in the process.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: FIFA’s biennial World Cup proposal is incredibly short-sighted