On the eve of the 2014 World Cup final between Germany and Argentina, FIFA president Sepp Blatter declared this year’s event to be “the first truly mobile and social world cup.” It’s easy to disagree with many of Blatter’s statements but not this one of them.
In fact the only grounds for debate was that this wasn’t just the most social World Cup of all time, it was almost the most technological, with innovations on and off the pitch helping referees, players and fans.
Goal-line technology made its debut, 4K and streaming made huge strides and fans were more involved than ever before thanks to unprecedented channels of communication.
The advent of the tablet, increased smartphone penetration and the explosion in popularity of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have encouraged the rise of the ‘second screen viewer’ who watches matches while posting on social media or using sports apps for live commentary and highlights.
More than 672 million Tweets were sent during the month –long competition, peaking with the 35.6 million posted during Germany’s 7-1 demolition of Brazil in the semi-final on 8 July. The second most active match was the final itself with 32.1 million Tweets, while the second semi-final between Argentina and the Netherlands on July 9 attracted 14.2 million. The single most active moment was when Germany’s victory in the final was confirmed, generating 618,725 Tweets per minute.
Neymar’s tournament may have ended in tears, but the world’s most marketable athlete was the most talked about player on Twitter, ahead of Golden Ball winner Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Cristiano Ronaldo and Arjen Robben.
Countries were also tracked, with the use of nation-specific hashtags like #GER and #ENG making that task easier, and the company has also produced maps showing which parts of the world were most active on each day of the tournament.
“The World Cup lived up to its name,” it duly noted, while BlackBerry reported significant spikes in the use of BBM during matches and Google claimed 2.1 billion World Cup related searches.
FIFA embraced social media and digital content in a big way during the World Cup, reporting 40 billion impressions and 107 million unique visitors to its website and mobile apps. World football’s governing body now has 451 million users, 16 million Twitter followers and its Instagram account grew from 42,000 to 800,000 in 31 days.
Digital is key for FIFA in its bid to engage fans with the tournament and increase exposure for its sponsors. Supporters were invited to vote for the Budweiser Man of the Match on Twitter and to sign up for McDonald’s Fantasy Football on FIFA.com. But this pales in comparison to the importance of its TV broadcasts, which generate the lion’s share of FIFA’s revenue and provide an audience of billions for its partners’ advertising boards.
This World Cup came too soon for 4K to be a mainstream technology, but FIFA and co are preparing for the future. Sony has produced some matches in Ultra HD, while the BBC held test transmissions of three 4K matches in the UK.
The final itself was filmed using an ultra-HD omincam, developed by scientists at the Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute in Berlin, and capable of producing a 360-degree viewing angle. It sits on the half way line and lets viewers see the match as though they were there in person. The recording will be available at the new FIFA World Football Museum in Zurich when it opens its doors in 2016, and it is hoped the technology will eventually arrive on tablets, allowing users to be their own camera operator.
Online streaming has been more prevalent at this year’s tournament, with the BBC streaming all of its matches in the UK on its sport app and ITV through the ITV Player. This was mirrored in the US, where 5.3 million people watched the USA v Belgium on either ESPN or Spanish-language broadcaster Univision’s online services.
“More and more football fans want to watch high quality, live coverage of matches on their tablets or mobile phones, as well as on their televisions,” says Stefan Wildemann, manager of sales and distribution at FIFA TV. “These figures show just how fast our industry is adapting to a truly multimedia world.”
And just to demonstrate there is nowhere to hide from the World Cup, the event was available to watch live in-flight for the first time, with passengers on seven airlines able to receive Sport 24, the world’s first live sports network for planes and ships. The stream is delivered via 17 satellites that cover most major flight paths, with a 50Mbps connection shared between passengers and the stream to ensure a consistent connection.
Back on land, the impact of streaming and online highlights was being felt by mobile networks. The single largest spike in traffic on the EE 4G network ever recorded was during Netherlands v Australia, shortly after Tim Cahill’s spectacular equaliser for the Socceroos. Although some of this can be attributed to posts on social media, many were seeking a clip of the goal.
EE’s network stats provide a fascinating insight into football fans’ streaming habits. With matches starting as early as 17:00 in the UK, many used their 4G connections to watch games either in the office or on the way home.
Indeed, four of the busiest ten matches on the network were early kick offs, whereas the final was only 11th – presumably because it was on a Sunday night at 20:00 when most people would have been at home. Another interesting development was the sudden surge in use during the final group D game between Italy and Uruguay as fans sought to see replays of Luis Suarez biting Giorgio Chiellini.
However it’s worth noting it appears some viewers prefer their mobile device to their TV. EE says BBC iPlayer use rocketed by 2,700 percent during England’s first group game against Italy on 14 June – a match that kicked off at 23:00 on a Saturday.
Cisco says the tens of millions of people streaming live matches or watching highlights is likely to have increased worldwide Internet traffic to 4.3 exabytes during the tournament and predicts increased ownership of tablets and smartphones, along with 4K streaming could boost this to 1.3 zettabytes by Russia 2018.
I want my GLT
But it’s not just the armchair fan experience that’s being transformed by technology, it’s the action on the pitch as well.
After years of resistance, including from Blatter himself, Brazil 2014 was the first World Cup to use goal-line technology. Typically, FIFA chose a different system to the Hawk-Eye GLT used in the Premier League all last season and awarded the World Cup contract to German firm CoalControl.
The company fitted 14 ultra-high speed cameras (seven per goalmouth) to the roof of all 12 venues and connected them to an image processing computer that filters out all objected which are not the same shape as a football. The system can track the ball’s position to within a few millimetres and should the ball cross the line, a vibration is sent to the referee’s watch and the world ‘GOAL’ appears on its screen in less than a second.
The first goal to be awarded at a World Cup through GLT was during France’s 3-0 victory over Honduras, although because the technology was required on two separate occasions during the same incident, two replays were shown on TV and on the stadium’s big screen – one saying ‘no goal’ and the other saying ‘goal’ – much to the confusion of the BBC’s Jonathan Pearce.
The other major technological innovation on the pitch was the vanishing spray used by referees during a free kick to mark where the ball and the opposition opponents should be – preventing either team from seeking and advantage once the ref’s back is turned.
The water-based spray disappears within a minute, leaving no visible mark, and has been used in South American domestic leagues for a number of years. It was widely lauded as a success during the World Cup and will be used in the Champions League next season and possibly the Premier League.
Football’s tech future
Professional teams and national federations have been embracing technology for some time, with data and video analysis units, along with sports science and nutrition, seen as a way of gaining an advantage.
But on the pitch, football has been slow to shed its Luddite attitude, failing to follow the lead of US sports, both rugby codes and even cricket in using technology to help referees make the best decisions.
This World Cup might be seen as a watershed moment in that regard, with FIFA keen to protect the integrity of its competitions as global television and streaming audiences rise and social media becomes more influential.
4K broadcasts and smart stadiums are likely to be among the technological innovations seen at Russia 2018, but who knows what else might be used when the final is contested in Moscow in four years’ time? It’s not something Jules Rimet likely considered when he organised the first World Cup in Uruguay 84 years ago.