It seems the sporting world is spoilt for major, global sporting events this year. Along with the usual FA Cup final, the Super Bowl and the Champions League final there is the added bonus of the European Championships in Poland and Ukraine as well as the 2012 London Olympics.
In an ever shrinking world these major sporting events are no longer played out in front of the thousands watching at a stadium, but watched by billions around the globe on television, discussed by millions on social network sites such as Twitter and Facebook and blogged about by millions on the internet.
Gone are the days, it would seem, of national sports for individual countries thanks largely to the saturation of media coverage; the NFL’s occupation of Wembley is a testament to the growth of interest on these shores in American sports while the MLS has seen expanded from 12 to 19 teams since the arrival of David Beckham at LA Galaxy from Real Madrid in 2007.
So it was interesting to note that, in the world of modern sport where communication is king, Chelsea’s dramatic Champions League semi-final win over Barcelona became the most talked about sporting event in the site’s history on Twitter.
Twitter’s remarkable growth as the place to share news, links and information means it is an accurate signpost of the popularity of a sporting event in particular, with a remarkable 13,684 tweets being sent out on the social network per second during the course of Chelsea’s game at the Camp Nou.
Interestingly that number helped the Champions League surpass the Super Bowl as the most tweeted about sporting event of all time in terms of tweets-per-second, with American football’s showpiece event notching 12,233 messages-per-second back in February.
However the use of information based on Twitter can be warped; the site is used mainly be young people (26 to 34 year-olds form 30 percent of its total users) so is this stat a fair indication of the Champions League as the most popular yearly sporting event in the world?
It would seem that that trend is indeed reflected in general TV audiences. European club football’s leading competition is garnering increased popularity across the world if 2009 figures which suggest that the final of the Champions League was watched by more that 206 million people, while the Super Bowl attracted 162 million viewers in total, are to be believed.
Of course the Super Bowl’s restrictions are clear for all to see; outside of America and despite its growing appeal in Europe in particular, it cannot compete with other events such as the Champions League, which at least represents a large group of countries rather than just one.
Last year’s Super Bowl attracted around 111 million viewers in the USA, making it the most viewed broadcast in the country’s history, forming the vast majority of its global viewing figure estimate, which stands as a very rough estimate of 160-170 million.
However if there is one area that football can’t keep up with its counterpart across the Atlantic, it is advertising, which the American television networks have got down to a fine art over the years.
An average 30-second spot during February’s big game between New York Giants and the New England Patriots cost around £3.5 million, while Nike’s full three minute World Cup advert which ran after the 2010 Champions League final (ITV accidently cut the last six seconds of it) set the American sportswear company back around £1.5million.
Of course, not only do the American networks have a far larger audience in terms of their domestic market to tap into but the Super Bowl advert has taken on its own identity and is seen as a key ritual that forms part of the entire event, meaning that American advertisers have far more leverage to sell their adverts with.
TV rights are another big selling point which UEFA, organisers of the Champions League, can exploit around the global appeal of the tournament, with Sky and ITV agreeing a £400m three-year deal for the UK alone last year.
Perhaps that explains how UEFA are able to ay Chelsea £45 million for reaching the final and why the competition means so much to clubs across Europe in the modern game.
Both the Champions League and the Super Bowl cannot claim to be truly global events by their very nature - they represent the interests of specific regions – and that’s where the Olympics and the World Cup come in to their own.
Estimates range between 600 million and 1 billion for the amount of viewers who tuned in for the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, while an estimate of more than 700 million worldwide viewers watched at least some part of the World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands in 2010.
So when it comes to pulling in the big numbers and viewers it appears that football is the undisputed king of sports ahead of the United States-centric sports including the Super Bowl - and that the Champions League is the biggest yearly event in the calendar.
The fact that 2009 marked the first time that the Champions League pulled in more viewers than the Super Bowl is indicative of a trend most expect to see continue for the foreseeable future – although this year’s Champions League final figures will surely be down because of the absence of a highly anticipated showdown between Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Interestingly, for the 2010 World Cup final ESPN revealed they received a 50 percent increase in viewers on their numbers from the previous tournament, hinting that interest in football, and by proxy the Champions League, in a relatively untapped market of 250-300 million or so people could be opening up.
If that interest in football continues to develop, then there could be greater scope for football to increase its reach across the world.
That’s not to get too carried however – the highest figures a ‘soccer’ game attracted in the US last year was the Gold Cup showdown between America and Mexico, which attracted around 9 million viewers, making it only the 62nd most watched sports broadcast behind events such as the Kentucky Derby, the Masters and college basketball to name just a few.
Premier League clubs, who have been a mainstay of the Champions League final in recent years, in particular are also going after a share of the Asian market, including China with its 2 billion population – meaning there is plenty of opportunity for football to stretch its lead in popularity over the Super Bowl in years to come.
The Champions League remains the biggest single yearly sporting event in the world ahead and its popularity shows no sign of diminishing. The Super Bowl, the self-styled ‘greatest show on earth’, may have to reconsider its billing.
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