By J Hutcherson (Jan 10, 2017) US Soccer Players – For some, FIFA expanding the 2026 World Cup by 16 teams is realizing that inclusion should be a goal. For others, it’s a money grab in an era where how much a tournament is worth to television and sponsors seems like the only things that matter. Then there are those who look at how FIFA is setting up that World Cup and wonders primarily about competition.
The three-team group model isn’t likely to please people in all of those groups. The potential for games that don’t count enough at World Cup level is high. We know that in early 2017. Then again, the alternative of a single game play-in round seems a little silly. Invite 32 teams to participate in a World Cup final only to send half of them home after one game? What’s the point?
So FIFA gets what it wants. There’s the political value in a bigger World Cup, something that wasn’t likely to lose support among members who would like to see their countries play. There’s the economic value, with reports of leaked internal FIFA documents highlighting just how much they can make. There’s the competitive value, where one and done falls to guaranteed games.
None of this is at all surprising. FIFA tinkering with tournaments that few people care about is nothing new. Applying that to the one tournament that does grab the world’s attention should be a given. That’s especially true under a new president who built his reputation in part on revamping Europe’s major national team tournament.
What Gianni Infantino and his colleagues did with the European Championship is certainly worth understanding. A 16-team tournament became a 24-team tournament. At least for the 2020 edition, one host country became many host cities. The complaints over the quality of the games in the expanded 2016 edition didn’t overcome the added inventory. UEFA now has more to sell. The costs to show the tournament go up. Europe did one better, replacing most of their friendly dates with the new Nations League. Games that sort of count. A multi-tiered league structure with the national team version of promotion and relegation. It’s soccer business in the era of the TV rights fee.
That’s the short and medium term game here. If TV rights are continuing to hit all-time highs, now is the time to take advantage. For anybody expecting a rights bust, a bubble bursting, or anything else that means less money for the same content, that doesn’t change right now. At the moment, there’s not enough of an indication of an imminent collapse to send anybody scrambling.
It’s easy enough to predict the end. It certainly make sense. At least it makes as much sense as a market that continues to pay more and more for that valuable live sports content. It’s unpredictable, you know. People have to watch in real time. It’s certainly better than scripted dramas and reality TV. Well, until it isn’t. Until the content providers provide too much. Until the viewers decide in a great enough number that they have better things to do with their time.
With that in mind, the quick and unanimous vote from the FIFA Council to approve World Cup expansion could look a little silly. No one in soccer’s leadership had a better idea? Not any of them looked at Euro 2016 and saw past the TV rights deals? None of them looked at the World Cup and their constituency and saw value in limited qualifying spots rather than more?
Yeah, I know. That’s not likely to happen within FIFA politics. Meanwhile, the European Club Association is once again holding the line for their version of soccer’s future. With their own interests obvious, they do make a solid point. Why now? Why so quickly? And why didn’t FIFA involve the leagues, clubs, and players in the discussion?
This is the age of FIFA transparency, remember. The old model of governance set aside for a new era of accountability. The safe assumption is that FIFA’s stakeholders believe that delivering more World Cup spots is their version of reducing taxes. Nobody is going to vote against it. Everybody is going to be happy.
Balancing FIFA’s unabashed optimism with a more cautious version might be the best way forward here. It’s the acceptance that FIFA will do what it wants regardless of outside pressure. It’s the hope that their decisions will result in an entertaining World Cup. After all, in this era of TV money over everything else, pro soccer is an entertainment business. Seeing it as anything else will just leave you disappointed.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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