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Monday, March 4, 2024

Comparing the Super Bowl to the men’s World Cup final and Champions League final

Last Sunday, after a made-for-TV event revealed the 2026 World Cup match schedule, FIFA president Gianni Infantino took a subtle shot at the NFL’s Super Bowl. 

The next men’s World Cup will be played in the U.S., Mexico and Canada, featuring an expanded field of 48 teams and 104 total games. 

“This will be 104 Super Bowls being played in North America,” Infantino said on Instagram. It was no coincidence that Infantino’s claim came at the start of Super Bowl week in Las Vegas. It was also a reminder that the worlds of soccer and American football both have an eye on each other as they each try to grow their operations. 

While the World Cup enjoys far greater popularity worldwide, the Super Bowl has cornered the U.S. market — an area of particular focus for global soccer powers over the last several decades. Which may be why some of soccer’s most influential officials are irked by the notion that the Super Bowl could be perceived as a bigger event than the World Cup. 

Three years ago, CONCACAF president and FIFA vice president Victor Montagliani was asked by a local television reporter in Atlanta why the city, which has hosted the Summer Olympics, would be interested in “an international event.” Montagliani recalled an anecdote about an unnamed NFL owner who told him that 100 million people around the world watch the Super Bowl. 

“I said, when we have the draw for the World Cup, which is ping-pong balls in a glass bowl, and some legend of the game pulls out a ball and says ‘USA versus Poland in Group A,’ that’s two to three times (the viewership of) a Super Bowl,” Montagliani said. “That’s just to pull balls out of a glass bowl, so that’s not even for the games of the World Cup… I’m not sure how else to answer that question, I think it answers itself.”

Super Bowl viewership smashes that of the World Cup final within the U.S. However, if you broaden it to the global numbers for both, it flips far in the other direction. The World Cup final is an unbeatable global behemoth and that’s the problem when comparing the men’s World Cup final with the Super Bowl. You simply cannot get past the numbers.

Take last year’s Super Bowl versus the 2022 World Cup final in Qatar. The 2023 Super Bowl between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Philadelphia Eagles set a domestic viewership record with 115.1 million viewers across Fox, Fox Deportes and other digital streams. Another 56 million people outside the U.S. watched the game. 

Those numbers are impressive, but they’re just a spec in comparison to the “global reach” of 1.5 billion FIFA reported to have for Lionel Messi and Argentina’s defeat of defending champions France in the 2022 World Cup final. Whether that’s a massive exaggeration by FIFA or an accurate viewership figure is debatable, and something The Athletic covered in greater depth here.

A record 18,000 media credentials were issued for the World Cup in Qatar, according to FIFA. This weekend’s Super Bowl in Las Vegas will host over 6,000 credentialed members of the press. It’s the 57th edition of the Super Bowl, and because it’s in Vegas for the first time, it feels like one of the bigger NFL title games in recent memory.

It features the league’s two best teams, a potential G.O.A.T. candidate in Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, against San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy, an unlikely hero who was the last player taken in the 2022 draft (a position dubbed “Mr. Irrelevant”). It’ll be a storybook ending in Sin City, no matter who wins the game. And yet, most of the world’s population won’t be watching. 

That’s why comparing the Super Bowl, a yearly title game between club teams, with the World Cup final, which is played every four years by national teams, misses the mark. 

The World Cup is a month-long tournament that since 1998, has featured 32 countries from around the world. The 2026 World Cup in North America will be the biggest World Cup ever in the most commercialized country on the planet. Despite Infantino’s dig and Montagliani’s ping-pong ball anecdote, FIFA can take some cues from the NFL, which has mastered the art of merging sports and entertainment. 

Think about why so many Americans and NFL fans around the world watch the Super Bowl. It’s a spectacle celebrated by parties and calls for it to be made an official national holiday. If the game itself falls flat, the millions watching from home (in the U.S. at least) can still debate whether the commercials were funny or innovative and watch the broadcast for the halftime show. A normal Super Bowl halftime break can run up to 30 minutes — twice as long as any other NFL halftime break — in order to allow organizers to set up and tear down an elaborate concert stage for superstar performers on the field. 

It’s hard to imagine FIFA extending halftime of a World Cup final for the same reason, but the tournament’s opening and closing ceremonies seem like a compromise. A Super Bowl halftime is also prime ad space, which is why advertising agencies and corporate sponsors will once again put all their eggs in one basket this Sunday, spending $7 million dollars for a 30-second chance to become part of American pop culture. Messi will star in a Super Bowl commercial for the first time this year, cementing his place in the American consciousness.

Clearly FIFA hears the noise regarding the Super Bowl-World Cup comparison. The World Cup is a monster on its own, but the Super Bowl has a cool factor that any sporting event would envy. It’s the blue collar mentality of Rocky mixed with the multi-billion-dollar NFL machine. The countless celebrities that attend a Super Bowl, the national anthem before kickoff. It’s simply unique. It’s Apple pie and heavy metal. It’s American exceptionalism. The Super Bowl is Americana at its finest. World soccer’s chief decision makers would love nothing more than to emulate that appeal.

Instead of the World Cup final, a fairer comparison would be to set the Super Bowl against the UEFA Champions League final. It’s by far the biggest game of the club soccer calendar. Both the Super Bowl and the Champions League final occur annually and both pit professional organizations against each other, rather than national teams. 

But yet again, the comparison ends with the viewership numbers. In 2023, UEFA estimated that a global audience of 450 million people would watch at least a portion of the Champions League final between Manchester City and Inter Milan. That’s still more than the Super Bowl’s viewership record. In this case, however, numbers don’t always tell the whole story. 

A feeling of grandeur is what has traditionally defined the Super Bowl. The build-up to Super Bowl Sunday is a week-long content circus. Nearly 24,000 fans attended this week’s media day event earlier this week at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, the site of Sunday’s Super Bowl. Players from both teams walked onto the stadium’s artificial turf like prize fighters before a heavyweight fight, only to take a seat at a podium and answer questions, with pop star Taylor Swift a particular point of emphasis.

“The (Champions League) final should be bigger,” said Paris Saint Germain president Nasser Al-Khelaifi in 2022. “I can’t understand how the Super Bowl can feel bigger than the Champions League final. The Super Bowl, and the U.S. generally, have this mindset, creativity and entertainment. That’s what I have suggested, to have an opening ceremony to the Champions League, to have one match on the opening night where the winners take on a big team — maybe it is not a good idea, but at least let’s challenge the status quo. Each match needs to be an event and entertainment.”

In 2015, Pepsi saw an opportunity to change the tone of the UEFA Champions League final by sponsoring the final’s Kickoff Show entertainment. Since then, international artists like Dua Lipa, Black Eyed Peas, and Camila Cabello have all featured at the start of the global broadcast. But does anyone remember those performances? 

Comparing the Super Bowl with soccer’s two biggest matches has become an endless debate. What should take precedence, though, are the many ways that FIFA, UEFA and the NFL are moving closer to one another. The three organizations are also gradually moving in on each other’s territories. The NFL continues to expand its brand globally, with the possibility of playing a Super Bowl in London becoming closer to reality. 

“It is not impossible, and it is something that has been discussed before,” NFL commissioner Roger Goddel said in 2023. 

Meanwhile, European soccer’s governing body has discussed holding its showpiece event in the United States.

So, while the numbers tell a good portion of the story when it comes to differences in popularity and appeal, the Super Bowl, World Cup and Champions League final all have elements envied and emulated by each other.

(Top image: Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images; Kohjiro Kinno/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images; Marvin Ibo Guengoer – GES; Sportfoto/Getty Images; Design: Eamonn Dalton)



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