If television audience records for this year’s Asian Football Confederation Asian Cup finals in Qatar are anything to go buy, Qatar can look forward to achieving new viewer records when it hosts the World Cup in 2022.
The Asian Cup finals last January set new domestic television audience records driven by viewers in Asian football giants Korea and Japan, the AFC said releasing data compiled by CSM Media Research. The data provide the first television ratings for the Middle East of Asian Cup finals.
Audiences in Japan, this year’s Asian Cup winner, grew from 131 million viewers of the 2007 tournament to 209.2 million of the Qatar event. The audience in Korea increased from 29.5 million in 2009 to 41 million this year.
Japan accounted for 43.2 percent of the total AFC Asian Cup 2011 audience followed by Korea and China with 32 percent or 156.6 million viewers. China’s ranking is despite the fact that its team was knocked out of the tournament early on.
Saudi Arabia with 5.8 percent of total viewership and the United Arab Emirates with 1.1 percent ranked fourth and fifth in Asia. In the Middle East itself, Saudi Arabia followed by the UAE topped the list while Kuwait came in third and host Qatar fourth.
Japan and Korea alone claimed more than half of the viewers who watched the semifinal between the two Asian rivals, which was won in a penalty shootout by Japan. The match ranked the highest rated of the tournament in both countries despite the fact that it was broadcast very late at night.
The second most watched AFC Asian Cup 2011 match was the Japan-Australia final with 54.4 million viewers. The quarterfinal between Japan and Qatar drew an audience of 45.63 million, making it the third highest rated match in terms of TV viewership.
CSM Media said the Qatar tournament produced some 3,600 hours of live coverage that was delivered to 484 million viewers in 80 countries in Asia, the Pacific, Europe, North America and North Africa.
“The AFC Asian Cup 2011 delivered top class football and the significant television viewership achieved reaffirms its position as the top sporting event in Asia,” World Football Insider quoted World Sport Group’s chief executive for West Asia, Pierre Kakhia, as saying. The group is the AFC’s marketing and media partner.
Sports and broadcast executives in the Middle East hope that the figures for the Asian Cup will boost efforts to professionalize and commercialize Middle Eastern soccer and create value. The government-owned Abu Dhabi Media Company last year bought the exclusive rights to air the UAE Premier League in a three-year deal believed to be worth $300 million.
“Something is moving,” said Santino Saguto, an Italian soccer management consultant based in Dubai. “Qatar 2022 has prompted the region to discuss ways to create value. The leagues, the football associations and the media are starting to buy into the concept. That’s how it started in Europe.”
The UAE’s marketing of soccer broadcast rights constituted a rare instance in which a Middle Eastern league sold such rights -- a key step in generating revenue and creating value. The UAE example is reportedly being closely looked at by Saudi Arabia, the region’s most important league beyond Egypt. Similar moves were afoot in Egypt prior to this year’s toppling of President Hosni Mubarak.
However, it may take a strong-willed broadcaster to shape a market that is still dominated by free-to-air channels, slow in the uptake of pay-TV and suffering from large-scale intellectual copy piracy.
“It was the same in Europe until BSkyB forced issues with the introduction of its decoders,” Mr Saguto said, cautioning it took BSkyB several years to break even on its investment.
Rupert Murdoch, the media baron on the verge of acquiring BSkyB and backed by his alliance with Saudi Arabia’s Rotana, owned by the Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, could drive the change needed in the Middle East to create value in football.
(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: email@example.com)