Daniel Altman

Winter Is Coming … to the World Cup

Winter Is Coming … to the World Cup

What do you do to make the crazy idea of a World Cup in Qatar a little less crazy? If you’re Joseph "Sepp" Blatter, president of global soccer’s governing body, you switch the tournament from the summer to the winter. Apparently, he didn’t realize that making a winter World Cup a success may be an even bigger challenge.

The decision to award Qatar the 2022 World Cup was perhaps the most bizarre in FIFA’s history. Until then, every host country had been decent at soccer and had boasted a population bigger than the tournament’s total attendance. Today, Qatar has about the same population, about 1.8 million, that Uruguay did when it hosted the first World Cup in 1930. But attendance then was below 600,000; at the last World Cup, in South Africa in 2010, 3.2 million seats were filled.

Either a lot of people are going to have to go to Qatar to match that figure, or the Qataris are each going to have to attend a lot of matches. Unlike most people, they can probably afford to, with income per capita soon to hit $100,000. There isn’t exactly a lot of competition in the market for flights to Doha, either; only a handful of airlines fly there from outside the region.

Climate has been another obvious issue. The Qataris promised to build air-conditioned stadiums, but they may have neglected the fact that much of what’s enjoyable about a World Cup happens outside, in the streets and plazas of the host cities, where people chant, kick balls around, and watch matches on big screens until late at night.

This omission is not surprising. In most of the recently constructed Gulf cities, there’s very little street life to speak of. The fun happens inside private compounds, clubs, restaurants, and hotels. The locals whizz around in expensive cars, and the only people on the streets — especially in the heat of the day — tend to be male migrant workers. Often, they don’t even have the benefit of sidewalks.

Putting the fun back into the World Cup is going to be a challenge for Qatar, as it tries to turn itself into a $200 billion soccer Disneyland. Of course, the legions of wealthy businessmen — they do tend to be men — whose companies buy up thousands of seats won’t be out on the streets. But soccer isn’t just for them.

The first step, moving the tournament to the winter, now has the influential endorsement of Blatter, who has been FIFA‘s president for the past 15 years. His decision has provoked outrage among the real powers in soccer: the top professional teams. For starters, these teams are rarely pleased when their millionaire players go off to play for their respective countries; it’s just another opportunity for them to get injured. But placing the tournament in the middle of their seasons, when the players are supposed to be at peak fitness and involved in as many as five lucrative competitions, is equivalent to FIFA stealing part of the return on some very big investments.

By the same token, though, the switch to the winter could lead to better soccer games at the World Cup. When teams full of top players fail to meet expectations in the tournament, as France did when it exited after the first round in 2002, observers often blame the rigors of the August-to-May schedule used by most of Europe’s big leagues. Players usually take a couple of months off in the summer to recuperate. When they can’t, the strain sometimes shows.

But the real problem with switching the tournament to the winter has to do with the success of the tournament for FIFA and soccer itself. Sports fans usually enjoy more than one sport. In the winter, several sports besides soccer are in full swing: American football, basketball, ice hockey, and, in 2022, the Winter Olympics. By contrast, summer World Cups coincide with the monotonous middle of the baseball season, some car races, a few international cricket matches, and little else of global importance.

As a result, a winter World Cup will face some stern competition for the casual viewer’s attention. Will Americans turn off the NFL playoffs to watch Iran play Tunisia? Will the Chinese skip the NBA to tune into Belgium versus Ecuador? At the margins, people who might have switched on a match or two in the summer — and perhaps become long-term fans of the game — may make another choice.

The winter is also a tougher time for many fans to travel. Except in the lightly populated Southern Hemisphere, most countries have school breaks in the summer. In Europe, which has the biggest base of soccer fans with enough money to go to Qatar, several big countries have fairly standard vacation periods in the summer, too. Faced with the prospect of going to a culturally conservative country without a lot of well-known attractions beyond the World Cup itself, traveling fans may simply opt to stay home.

It seems very likely that the inflow of tourists to Qatar will be much smaller than the 300,000 who came to South Africa during the 2010 World Cup. The Qataris may well protect FIFA’s ticket sales by putting rear ends in seats, even if they’re the same rear ends over and over. Where FIFA stands to lose is in the broadcast revenues. If fewer people are expected to watch, advertising will be less valuable, and networks won’t pay as much to show the games.

Yet FIFA executives are unlikely to fret much about this. They’ll still be wined and dined to the heights of extravagance in Qatar, and they may already have received some rich payoffs for picking the host country in the first place. In this game, only the sport of soccer will lose.