Today is kickoff day for the football (soccer) World Cup - arguably the most important show on Earth after, maybe, the Olympics. 32 teams will face-off for access to the final game on July 9, in front of one billion TV viewers and radio listeners.
Yes, it's just a game. But there is a mystique associated with the World Cup that brings together genius and strength (on the field) with pounding hearts and national pride (among the fans) with big business and domestic and international politics (the Swiss magazine Bilan just estimated the size of the "FIFA economy" - FIFA being the football's global governing body - at 44 billion euros, probably underestimating it by half; and consider the political impacts of the Cup: the possible "peacemaking" role of the Ivory Coast players, the increased re-election chances of president Lula Da Silva in October if the Brasilian team wins, the fact that for one month we will probably hear and read more about Ronaldinho than about Ahmadinejad).
This blog concerns itself mostly with technology and innovation and their impacts on people. From this perspective, the World Cup will also be the kickoff of so-called "mobile TV": television-like services distributed over broadband wireless networks or broadcast to mobile phones and devices. The event is actually seen as a kind of make-or-break moment. Mobile operators in many countries are trying to leverage the massive interest for the Cup to launch a number of mobile TV services. Many have already completed trials and launched commercial services (involving mobile newscasts, downloads, "mobisodes" versions of hit TV shows, etc) in the last year or so, but - apart from music downloading - they haven't gained much traction. Watching "television" on the small screen of a phone, even a big one, remains a sub-par experience; networks (based on standards such as UMTS and EDGE, or on DVB-H for digital broadcasting) still offer uneven coverage and questionable reliability; pricing models are far from defined; etc.
But wireless operators from several dozen countries have bought up the rights to supply their customers with live broadcasts or delayed highlights, paying a reported total of nearly 100 million euros to Infront Sports&Media, the Switzerland-based company in charge of marketing those rights (I was an easy diviner when I wrote in my book "Roam" in 2001 that "mobile events rights are set to become premium assets"). And they definitely see the World Cup as the catalyst for the take-up of mobile TV.
Among the most aggressive will be Debitel in Germany and 3 in Italy. 3, a late entrant on the Italian market but probably one of the most innovative operators in the world, is offering subscribers an LG phone with a swivel color screen (for "widescreen" viewing - assuming one can use "wide" to define that of a pocket device - picture right) and access to both the UMTS wireless network and the DVB-H digital broadcasting signal. Subscribers will be able to watch all 64 games live, and to choose among several "comments" options: by sportscasters, by a parody group, or by 3's own team of in-house fans-and-experts - recruited, I'm told, among their call center employees. Other operators are instead selling less ambitious packages including, for example, SMS and/or MMS goal alerts (when a team scores) and a short video summary of the highlights of the game. Generally speaking, the whole industry (well, this for now is mostly a European and Asian affair, while the US is pretty absent, both because football - soccer - plays a lesser role there, and because the American operators are still trying to catch up to the rest of the world in next-gen services), I was saying, generally speaking the whole industry looks at the World Cup as a chance to test both their capacity to deliver these services, and the (so far elusive) consumer demand. Mobile TV however will remain a niche proposition for the foreseeable future: forecasters such as Informa see 10% of all mobile subscribers having a "TV-enabled" handset by 2010.
The World Cup will also be a big story online, of course, as thousands of websites will cover, comment, and generally leverage the event (news media setting up special sites; betting; fans' clubs; merchandising; the FIFA's own official site, in cooperation with Yahoo; and so on) trying to reach both fans and people "trapped" in offices without a TV nearby (that's, by the way, an advertising line used by some wireless operators too: "Your boss is not letting you take World Cup holidays? Get the Cup on your cell phone"...). I will point out just one blogneedle in the blogstack: WeAllSpeakFootball, which is a collective blog experiment sponsored by Coca-Cola and produced by Austrian startup Knallgrau. They're bringing some European "professional" bloggers - among which my friends Gabe McIntyre from Holland and Katharina Borchert ("Lyssa") from Germany, and Anil De Mello from Spain - together in Berlin, and inviting any other interested blogger to join them (here is the application form) to "cover" the Cup. It's an attempt to bring some informal conversation into an environment - that of the World Cup sponsors - obsessed with "brand" and "message" (Knallgrau by the way did a similar exercise last winter at the Olympics when they produced Torino Conversations.) It's early to tell what this will give, but I will keep an eye on it.
Talking about brands and ads, here is for the record an example of the invasion of public space by the Cup's sponsors: this is a 65-meters-wide Adidas billboard placed on a bridge scaffolding over the road to Munich airport, featuring the German goalkeeper Oliver Kahn catching the newly-designed (by Adidas) Teamgeist ball (the other side shows the goalie's back):
The Cup's first game is Germany vs. Costarica, today at 6 PM CET. Enjoy.