Listen to this article
Compare the Queen with Wayne Rooney. Twenty years ago, her traditional speech on Christmas day drew 28m viewers. But last Christmas she attracted only 8.5m. As she has fallen, football has risen: nearly 21m Britons saw Rooney break his foot against Portugal at Euro 2004.
Next weekend’s qualifying matches for Euro 2008, played all over Europe, will be among the continent’s most-watched TV programmes this year. National football teams now provide our biggest communal experiences. Only they can get half a nation doing the same thing at the same time. Football has never been so dominant, yet the differences between viewers in Croatia and Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium, or South America and England remain vast.
It used to be more common for a whole nation to sink into its sofas for the same TV programme. There simply weren’t many channels to choose from, and teenagers couldn’t yet disappear into the internet and PlayStations.
But then TV audiences splintered, as everyone began watching different programmes. The one exception is football. Its viewing figures rise constantly, particularly as more women switch on. Initiative Sports Futures, the best source of international viewing data, reports that 41 per cent of viewers of the last World Cup were women – the highest proportion ever, though the number of male viewers rose, too. Football is conquering new territories: in France, historically indifferent to the game, the nine biggest TV audiences of 2006 were for football matches. Chinese, Japanese, Indians and Americans are all catching on to football, too. True, in 2003, American football’s Super Bowl was the world’s most-watched sports programme, with 93m viewers. But 13 matches at Euro 2004 drew bigger audiences.
And today’s viewing figures understate football’s actual audiences. They don’t capture the growing hordes watching games “out of home”, in pubs or public squares. For instance, Germany’s defeat to Italy at last year’s World Cup officially drew 29.7m German viewers, itself the country’s record audience for football. But perhaps another 12m Germans watched the game out of home. In short, international football has replaced institutions like churches or trade unions as the “glue” helping to keep many countries together.
However, the glue is stronger in some countries than others. Judging by football, Europe’s most united nation is the Netherlands. No team at last year’s World Cup, or the last two European championships, drew proportionately larger audiences in its own country than did Holland. Dutch matches at the 2006 World Cup were watched by an average of 45 per cent of Dutch people, reports Initiative. Partly this is because of Holland’s strong footballing tradition. Partly it is because of the country’s homogeneity. Dutch regional, linguistic and class divides are relatively small. The nation as family feels represented by its team. And this kinship extends beyond soccer to speed-skating and darts. The 20 biggest audiences for Dutch TV programmes last year were all for sport.
At the World Cup of 2002, the most loyal spectators of any team were Croats. Croatians are “some of the most fanatical sports fans anywhere”, says Kevin Alavy, Initiative’s head of analytics. Bosnia, adds Alavy, gets large audiences for friendly matches. The other countries with the most devoted viewers – Sweden and Denmark – are also small and homogenous.
The national teams of Europe’s largest states draw relatively few spectators. Perhaps these countries aren’t very united. Furthermore, their football leagues often outshine the national teams.
“England are in a mid-table mediocrity” for domestic viewing figures, says Alavy. This must partly be because England’s team represents the working class rather than the nation itself. The English have another peculiarity, which they share with the Italians: they are disproportionately interested in their own national team. They are much less likely than, say, the Dutch to watch other teams playing in a tournament.
Spaniards aren’t even very interested in their own team. Initiative explains: “Many people in Spain feel more strongly attached to their region than to Spain as a whole.” Spanish audiences for international sport are therefore often “relatively low”.
Belgium endures a double whammy: weak national sentiment, weak national team. Its football association is currently struggling just to sell the TV rights to Belgium’s home games.
But some countries get few viewers even when they play well. Though Greece won Euro 2004, their domestic audiences were in the bottom five of the 16 teams in the tournament. Alavy explains: “Their international record before that tournament was woeful. Expectations were very low.” In short, Greeks had a tradition of not watching.
Outside Europe, South Americans watch their football teams most. In the last two World Cups, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay all made the top five for domestic audiences. This is particularly impressive given that both tournaments were played outside their time zone. South American viewers had to juggle their schedules more creatively than did Europeans. Alavy says: “I wouldn’t be surprised if in 2014, if the World Cup is held in South America, five South American teams top the ratings.”
The US traditionally provides the lowest domestic audiences of any country in the World Cup. Still, soccer now rivals “American” sports on American TV. Last year nearly 17m Americans watched soccer’s World Cup final. That was 4m more than the average audience for the NBA basketball finals and just below the average of 17.1m viewers a game for baseball’s World Series.
The Super Bowl remains America’s great communal event, watched by nearly a third of Americans. However, Holland’s match against Rumania next Saturday – a mere qualifier – should draw almost as big a slice of the Dutch nation.
Get alerts on News when a new story is published