But the real problem with switching the tournament to the winter has to do with the success of the tournament for FIFA and soccer itself. Sports fans usually enjoy more than one sport. In the winter, several sports besides soccer are in full swing: American football, basketball, ice hockey, and, in 2022, the Winter Olympics. By contrast, summer World Cups coincide with the monotonous middle of the baseball season, some car races, a few international cricket matches, and little else of global importance.
As a result, a winter World Cup will face some stern competition for the casual viewer’s attention. Will Americans turn off the NFL playoffs to watch Iran play Tunisia? Will the Chinese skip the NBA to tune into Belgium versus Ecuador? At the margins, people who might have switched on a match or two in the summer — and perhaps become long-term fans of the game — may make another choice.
The winter is also a tougher time for many fans to travel. Except in the lightly populated Southern Hemisphere, most countries have school breaks in the summer. In Europe, which has the biggest base of soccer fans with enough money to go to Qatar, several big countries have fairly standard vacation periods in the summer, too. Faced with the prospect of going to a culturally conservative country without a lot of well-known attractions beyond the World Cup itself, traveling fans may simply opt to stay home.
It seems very likely that the inflow of tourists to Qatar will be much smaller than the 300,000 who came to South Africa during the 2010 World Cup. The Qataris may well protect FIFA’s ticket sales by putting rear ends in seats, even if they’re the same rear ends over and over. Where FIFA stands to lose is in the broadcast revenues. If fewer people are expected to watch, advertising will be less valuable, and networks won’t pay as much to show the games.
Yet FIFA executives are unlikely to fret much about this. They’ll still be wined and dined to the heights of extravagance in Qatar, and they may already have received some rich payoffs for picking the host country in the first place. In this game, only the sport of soccer will lose.
Daniel Altman teaches economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business and is chief economist of Big Think.