World Cup Soccer Fever

Originally published in Utah Business.

I love World Cup summers. It’s a time to give your work-a-day life a pause and pay attention to what really matters in life—futbol, or what us yanks like to call soccer. It turns out I’m not alone—far from it. The cumulative viewing audience for the 2014 World Cup will exceed an estimated 5.9 billion people, making it, by far, the world’s most watched sporting event.

Get ready for the global GDP to take a temporary hit as human productivity suffers. Here’s one soccer fan and economist who really doesn’t mind.

The 2014 World Cup kicks off June 12 and concludes one month later. During this time, an estimated 80 percent of the world’s population will watch games. There’s really no sporting event that can hold a candle to the World Cup. Consider these viewing audience stats from 2010, the year of the last World Cup:

The competition started two years ago as 204 countries from six continents competed for 31 available spots. The host country, which is Brazil this year, makes up the last spot in a 32-team field. To secure an invite to the tournament, national teams around the globe played approximately 850 matches.

The drop in productivity is easy to explain. Employers and employees who have World Cup fever stay up late, come to work late (or tired), call in sick, close up shop and otherwise waste time at work while participating in betting pools, checking scores or gabbing about the players, the games and the referees.

There are lots of stories about crazy economic events that happen in World Cup years. Italian autoworkers that were told they couldn’t watch a World Cup game while working went on a two-hour strike a half hour before game time.

In fanatical soccer countries like Brazil, everything shuts down during games so people can party in the streets. Government agencies, schools, banks and other businesses close. Even hospitals slow down as elective surgeries are postponed. Can’t you just hear the drums pounding in your head?

My favorite is a claim by a South Korean retailer that monthly sales for adult diapers increased by 168 percent during the World Cup because fans, many of whom watched the games at outdoor plazas, didn’t want to miss a minute of the action!

This summer’s competition promises to draw even more attention because Brazil, the international face of the “beautiful game,” plays host. Eight different teams have won the competition since it started in 1930 (1942 and 1946 were skipped because of the Second World War). Brazil has won five times, Italy four, Germany three, Argentina and Uruguay two, and England, France and Spain one.

There is a definite Utah connection to this year’s tournament as local Real Salt Lake stars Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando were selected to be on the U.S. team. Only five other U.S. Major League Soccer cities have players on the national team, which is a huge tribute to the caliber of soccer played in Utah. Since an estimated 95 million people will view each match via the international television feed, any shout out for Real Salt Lake would be a huge tribute to our capital city and state.

To those of you who are not soccer fans, I invite you to join the international community and experience the largest sporting phenomenon known to man. Remember, it’s not about endless scoring like you see in basketball. That’s too predictable. It is about a sport where the action never stops (no time outs, no television ads and very few breaks in play), where physical endurance rules, where skill and tactics dominate, and where just about the whole world stops for about a month and celebrates the joy of sport.

GDP growth may experience a hiccup, but even an economist like me believes there’s much more to life than counting money.