Satellites and the Beautiful Game

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The World Cup is the world’s most widely viewed sporting event. The 2010 World Cup held in South Africa was broadcast to 204 countries on 245 different channels. The 2014 World Cup expected an audience of more than 3 billion people.  

All those eyeballs staring at screens also make the World Cup one very lucrative event. The sale of broadcast rights to the 2010 World Cup earned FIFA, soccer’s governing body, US$2.4 billion and was expected to earn $2.6 billion in 2014.    

But the rights are just the start. Broadcasters are willing to pay so much because the World Cup is uniquely valuable to advertisers.

The 2006 World Cup generated another $1 billion in TV commercials and other advertising, and spending rises 5-10% on average with each successive event. Add it up and the television coverage of the 2014 World Cup is likely to be worth more than $4 billion – not bad for 30 days of fast-paced sport.

The World’s Water Cooler

How do all those people get to see the most popular game in the world? Some coverage travels over optical fiber to broadcast centers. But satellite is a vital contributor, because of the number of games in different locations that must be covered in a short window of time.

Satellite and the World Cup have deep common roots. In 1970, the official ball for the World Cup was provided by Adidas. To make sure that the ball would show up well on the black-and-white TVs of the day, Adidas designed a ball with alternating black and white patterns, which has since become the football standard. Adidas dubbed the ball “Telstar” for its likeness to Bell Telephone’s then-famous satellite, which relayed the first transatlantic live TV signal.  

In addition to high reliability and TV-friendly bandwidth, satellite is flexible. A TV signal can go up on a satellite in hours or days and reach nearly any place on the planet.  

That is why the satellite operator Intelsat devoted nine satellites and another operator, Eutelsat, a further four spacecraft to handle coverage of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Before the 2014 World Cup, the satellite operator SES estimated that it would deliver more than 30,000 hours of coverage from 12 sports venues across Brazil. Intelsat committed another 500 MHz of capacity to handle more than 50,000 hours of TV programming from Rio de Janeiro, while SES stepped up with a 450 MHz commitment.  

Delivering that immensely popular programming takes the full capabilities and reach of those operator’s fleets, which are about evenly divided between the lower C-Band and higher Ku-band frequencies. Take away satellites or let anything seriously interfere with their signals, and screens go dark around the world. That would mean not just unhappy fans but a financial impact in the billions of US dollars.

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