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Could 2010 World Cup final be the most watched event in history?

By Ben Wyatt, CNN
  • FIFA hopes 2010 World Cup final will set new television audience record
  • Spain will clash with the Netherlands Sunday from 2.30 p.m. ET
  • 2006 World Cup final had an audience around 700 million
  • Industry expert says lack of interest from China may curb viewing figures

Soccer City Stadium, South Africa (CNN) -- The World Cup final has always been one of the most watched events on the planet with viewers from New York to Nepal tuning in to see soccer's elite in action.

But now football's world governing body FIFA hopes Sunday's final between the Netherlands and Spain will prove to be the most watched event of all-time, after early research suggests the 2010 edition hosted by South Africa has garnered the biggest television audience yet.

"We don't want to speculate in numbers but we're hoping this will be the biggest [event] ever," Niclas Ericson, FIFA's director of television, said in a press conference from Soccer City Stadium, the final's venue.

"We think it will be bigger than the 2006 World Cup final which had an audience somewhere in the region of around 700 million," he added.

The record to beat is that set by the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games, when in 2008 a global audience of one billion watched at least some part of the extravaganza unfolding in the Chinese capital.

Kevin Alavy, a director of Futures Sport + Entertainment, a global sport research and evaluation consultancy, told CNN that sport had an attraction few other events could match.

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"The most watched events in history, by some margin, are the opening ceremony of the Olympics Games and the World Cup final. Historical events, like the inauguration of Barack Obama or the funeral of Princess Diana for example may be important from a cultural and historical perspective, but they simply don't have the same scale of television audiences that mass sport events can generate," he said.

Alavy added that for any record attempt the Chinese market was now crucial. "Historically the World Cup final always drew more figures than anything else, however, when the Olympics took place in... the most populous nation in the world the viewing figures went through the roof.

"Our research found that there was a global audience of 593 million people who watched the opening ceremony live, while 320 million watched the World Cup final in Germany in 2006," Alavy said.

However, Ericson said the international reach of the World Cup had grown significantly since 2006. "I think this is the first time we have managed to place the rights in every single television territory -- right from the small Pacific islands, to small countries in Asia and Africa -- we have covered everywhere.

"The kick off time has maximized the viewership in America and in Africa. In market share we have seen big increases in major territories, therefore we feel confident in saying that we'll have much higher figures than those for Germany.

"In Spain [for example] we expect the final to be an all-time record for sport in the country's history, in Holland we are expecting a share of 90 percent of the audience -- so basically every Dutch person who is watching television at that time will be watching the World Cup final," Ericson added.

FIFA confirmed the semifinal between Germany and Spain had set a new German television record of more than 30 million -- attracting nearly 40 percent of the population -- while the USA's game against Ghana was seen by more people in the States than when America played a quarterfinal against Brazil in the 1994 World Cup they hosted.

Meanwhile, Bafana Bafana's game against Uruguay drew a domestic audience greater than 1995 Rugby World Cup final when South Africa won as tournament hosts.

On top of the audience growth in television markets Ericson added there were hundreds of thousands who had watched at public viewing venues or on other platforms that had not been counted, factors that needed to be taken into account.

"ESPN in the United States for example have had record numbers in terms of broadband viewership. Many of the games have taken place in office hours so we have heard funny stories of entire companies' networks collapsing, and banks having to shift transactions to secure environments because the weight of traffic was so large," he said.

Despite the confidence of FIFA, Alavy remained skeptical that a new record for the most watched event of all time could be set. "We felt the total global audience for the 2010 edition would be up by five percent on 2006.

"However, even if this was achieved it would still be somewhere behind the Beijing figures. China, at the moment, are pretty rubbish at football so the audiences are still small in this crucial market."

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