Technology and the 2026 World Cup
When it comes to modern technological advancements and the effect they have on sports, eight years can seem like either the blink of an eye, or an eternity, depending on perspective. Just before the current edition of FIFA World Cup kicked off, the United bid of the United States, Mexico, and Canada was awarded the 2026 edition of the World’s most prominent event. Of course, this is a noteworthy development for a myriad of reasons, however, it’s fascinating to look at today’s emerging technologies and attempt to project how they may impact our regions first World Cup in over thirty years.
Let’s start with streaming. Today, there is a fascination with the “cord cutting” movement and more specifically to sports, how that translates to OTT platforms. As such, broadcasters from around the World have taken the appropriate measures to ensure streaming options are plentiful for the event’s current edition. Data from Conviva suggests that World Cup matches are seeing well over 100% growth with peak audiences vs. the 2014 event, and over 40% growth from the then record numbers who streamed the Super Bowl just four months ago. The reality, however, is that in eight years’ time, “cord cutters” will likely be the rule rather than the exception, and broadcasters and advertisers will have to adjust accordingly. This doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone will be choosing to watch on a 4-inch screen rather than 50 inches. What it does mean is that the broadcast partners will be creating primary executional strategies for streaming, rather than cable (or over-the-air). Per Adweek, there have been nearly 100 Million FAILED streams of the tournament so far, out of about 500 Million attempts. A 20% failure rate is not something which will be tolerated in 2026. This means that technology and infrastructure will play a more significant role than ever before. As will the meaning and value of owning such rights.
How will sub-licensing agreements work? As broadcasters continue to accept the new realities of a streaming heavy (and soon to be dominant) world, will they continue to be in the business of sub-licensing their content to the likes of Sling, PlayStation Vue, and FuboTV? Or will they use the power of those rights to force the consumer to go directly to the source (Fox/Telemundo in the U.S.) in a more a-la-carte version of today’s streaming options. Of course, one of the barriers to such a scenario continues to be password sharing. This is where blockchain technology may play a major role in enabling broadcasters to ensure that only the appropriate registered users of an account are accessing the content. There is sure to be a significant amount of blockchain based TV programming by 2026, however, can enough advancements continue to be made that the World’s most prominent sporting event will streamed on it?
Speaking of the blockchain, how about a World Cup where the entire ticketing platform is built on it? Major sporting events have been the subject of ticketing fraud for decades. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the history of its administrators, the World Cup has been more targeted than most. As an event with ticket buyers from every corner of the globe, blockchain would be the perfect decentralized technology to ensure the authenticity of purchases, and more importantly, ticket resale, therefore eliminating the threat of a fraudulent market. Per the United bid’s revenue projections, the average ticket price for the 2026 World Cup will be approximately $400. That makes for an investment level which cries out for the security and transparency that the blockchain provides.
Wait…. $400?? Let’s assume that “average” equates to midfield, upper deck. Enter, virtual reality. If a fan is able to stay home and feel like they’re standing in the boots of Christian Pulisic as he prepares to take a free kick, will they be willing to shell out a car payment for a ticket (let alone four) to sit hundreds of feet from the pitch? The answer to that is likely yes, as we are a continent which loves spectacle, and has more than enough citizens with disposable income to fill up stadiums. However, 2026 will also be the first edition of the tournament with forty-eight (48) participants. That means quality will be diluted, so there will assuredly be some matches which don’t register highly on the attractiveness scale. Virtual reality is certain to have a major impact on the sports viewing experience over the course of the next eight (8) years, and it could very well have an effect on 2026 attendance.
Perhaps most fascinating as we project out eight years, are the advancements in Artificial Intelligence which will specifically have a major impact on advertisers. In 2026, the vast majority of North Americans will be connected TV users. Advertisers ability to target and interact with their desired consumers via the immediate, real time data analysis which AI offers will change nearly everything we currently recognize as traditional TV commercialization. FIFA (and all major events) may very well suffer from these advancements. Brands will be far less likely to invest in traditional, high priced official sponsorships, when they can use AI to create much more efficient and effective tactics designed to leverage the event. Ironically, this ability to create more meaningful dialogue with consumers may very well unlock the true power of an association with the World Cup, even in an unofficial capacity.
Finally, regardless of technology, it’s important to keep in mind that the host nations automatically qualify, so at the very least Americans won’t have to suffer through another gauntlet of salt-in-the-wound ad campaigns!