Almost half of the population of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) were glued to their tellies and watched the FIFA World Cup between June 14 and July 15 this year. In Russia, the elimination phase where the Russian national team battled valiantly and against all expectations to remain in the competition was among the sports broadcasts with the highest audience-figures in Russia over the past 20 years, while in Croatia the broadcast of the homecoming event became a record-breaker in terms of length.
A survey conducted by weCAN, a network of independent advertising agencies from Central and Eastern Europe, compared World Cup viewership rates in 14 markets: Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Ukraine.
It ranked countries according to four indicators: the proportion of individuals who watched any World Cup match for at least five minutes, the average proportion of people who watched individual matches, the percentage of viewership of the one match that was the most popular among the local audience, and the percentage of people who watched the final.
By calculating the average of each country’s place in these rankings, the study found Croatia was the real winner of the TV audience competition with the highest viewership of the competition in Europe.
It is no surprise that the countries whose national teams qualified for the World Cup rank highest. Croatia’s audience took the lead, followed by Serbs and Russians. The Poles lagged behind Bosnia, but still made it to the top five. Most Southeast European countries are in the leading half of the ranking, while Ukraine, the members of the Visegrad Group (with the exception of Poland) and the Baltic states watched the least.
Two out of five people watch the tournament
Ranking viewing according to the percentage of people who watched the World Cup for at least five minutes displays similar results. In Croatia and Serbia, almost nine out of 10 people watched the championship, while the same number was also high in Poland and Russia: eight and seven, respectively. In total, 131mn people followed the championship to any extent, which is 44% of the region’s population.
The fact that Croatia reached the final boosted the numbers of course, but Martin Koprek, media director of Direct Media, weCAN’s partner agency for media services in Croatia, says that even if Croatia hadn’t reached the end the football crazy nation would have still watched the final. “In 2010, when Croatia did not qualify for the World Cup, 38% of Croats watched the final between Spain and the Netherlands. In 2014, Croatia was eliminated at the group phase, but even so, 45% of Croats followed the final between Argentina and Germany – basically as many people as this year.”
Measuring the audience in Russia is harder as there is no centralised TV-audience monitoring system for towns with 100,000 people or less, so the Russian results rely on the large and medium-sized towns only. However, according to Alexander Semenov, CEO of weCAN’s partner Mediaplus Russia, while the average audience of individual games was 6.7mn in 2010 and 5.6mn in 2014, it doubled in 2018, reaching 12.5mn people, which means that 18% of the population of bigger towns watched each match.
When it comes to spectators’ gender, it is apparent that the woman-man ratio tends to be more balanced in countries that qualified, meaning that women took more interest in the championship if their team was competing. According to the average of 14 countries, 60% of the viewers were men and 40% women (79mn and 52mn people, respectively).
The final is not everything
The final was the match with the highest viewing figures in nine out of 14 countries. Serbs were most interested in the Serbia vs Brazil match, while most Poles wanted to see their team competing against Colombia. The only countries where the viewership figures are somewhat surprising are Croatia and Russia.
More Russians were curious about their team playing in the round of 16 (Russia vs Spain) than in the quarter-finals (Russia vs Croatia). Even though the difference between the coverage rates of the two games was only 0.17%, the result is still unexpected and requires explanation.
“Russians lost to the Spaniards in the semi-final of the UEFA Euro 2008, and some football fans have been waiting for the moment of revenge for 10 years,” says Semenov.
“In any case, the games of the elimination phase of the World Cup were among the sports broadcasts with the highest audience figures in Russia over the past 20 years. 30% is a very high percentage for sports events in Russian towns. The only game that had a similarly high average audience-rate over the last years as the Russia vs Croatia and the Russia vs Spain ones was the semi-final of the UEFA Euro 2008,” adds Semenov.
Even more surprising are the figures from Croatia. According to Koprek, there are two reasons why the TV audience numbers of the semi-final (Croatia vs England) exceeded that of the final. “First, the final was the most important match, so people decided to watch it on big outdoor screens, turning off their Nielsen people-meters. Second, it became clear in the 65th minute when France took over with 4:1 that Croatia would lose the game. If this had become evident later, or if there had been some extra time, more people would have stayed to see the result, including those who are not particularly interested in football.”