How do you cover a World Cup like Russia? For all the media’s focus on the alleged FIFA corruption behind the bid, frenzied panic over hooliganism, and the resurgent narrative of a Cold War-esque East-West divide, it is quite easy to forget there will be a football tournament going on.
But what is that tournament going to look like? The media landscape is in a very different place to where it was during Brazil 2014. More and more people are tuning in to watch their favourite teams, but the ways in which they do so are anything but familiar. Twitter, Facebook Live, and YouTube are making moves towards live streaming, while Snapchat and Instagram are now the go-to places for instant highlights. The future of sports broadcasting is at a crossroads, and Russia 2018 is set to be the perfect testing ground for how live sports will be consumed in the future.
According to James Kirkham, head of football platform Copa 90, while Russia 2018 will come too soon for us all to be tuning in via virtual reality headsets, we are unlikely to be sitting down for the full 90 minutes either. “Much more likely,” he says, “the humble GIF will dominate live action footage… Predicated on speed and agility, and ease of consumption, it is the currency of the live broadcast, and of the social commentary around the game.”
The major changes, Kirkham says, will be around how a football game is processed, distributed, shared, and enjoyed around the world. The future will be about moments: “Moving from those 90 minutes that we’re all used to, to the moments, the key highlights of a game that we pick up, we share, we comment on with our friends… The emergence of social platforms in this era, it’s changing everything. It’s no longer the preserve of Sky Sports or BT Sport or more traditional players, perhaps the ESPN’s of this world.”
James Grigg, the head of international relations at sports news website Bleacher Report, adds that distributors without access to rights (and so without the ability to show goals) will instead focus on a “totally alternative discourse,” working to provide “pub ammo” – key stats, images and takeaways from the one big development in a game, all the time moving “away from the 1,000 word match report”. Although now, Grigg says: “It’s a virtual pub, it’s WhatsApp, it’s messenger. That’s the virtual pub that we have now.”
If that wasn’t enough, the football narrative has widened to include personalised pre-game hype, facilitated by live-updates to specialised video games such as FIFA and Football Manager, which allow fans to play with an avatar of Cristiano Ronaldo before watching him step out for Real Madrid five minutes later. Additionally, Kirkham says, “individual superstars that are transcending their clubs and becoming global icons,” will change the way fans from across the world interact with the sport. Fans with no “traditional” club affiliation are instead following the stories of individual superstars, benefiting from the direct line, 24-hour access that the players’ own personal social media accounts provide rather than paying attention to the narrative fed to them by broadcasters, clubs and newspapers.
Whichever way you spin it, Russia 2018 will not look anything like previous iterations of this most celebrated of sporting events. The only certainty? There will – hopefully – be some football.