Current Events
December 2, 2022

Qatar’s Big Bet on the World Cup: Is it paying off?

Qatar’s Big Bet on the World Cup:

Is it paying off?

As billions of people across borders, cultures, and time zones watch the World Cup, they thrill to heroic individual performances and shocking upsets.

But the meaning of sport is hardly confined to the pitch. Social, political, and economic questions are inevitably also in play. And when it comes to this World Cup in particular, far more is at stake than a trophy—despite the pleas of FIFA (the Fédération Internationale de Football Association) for everyone to ignore politics.

Qatar is the host country for the World Cup. And from the very beginning, its role has been the locus of swirling controversy: Was Qatar’s bid tainted by corruption? Did its stadiums rise from the desert on the backs of mistreated migrant laborers? Or are the accusations of “sports washing” from the west merely hypocritical finger-pointing?

Qatar’s big bet

This World Cup is—among many other things—an investment in Qatar’s global brand. Here at Glimpse, we wanted to see if Qatar’s monumental gamble was paying off.

We noticed that there was very little reliable data available to begin answering this question, so we launched an exploratory study, targeting 100 US-based and 100 UK-based World Cup watchers to see if their opinions of Qatar had shifted—and how. We were interested in top-of-mind awareness of issues and controversies, as well as people’s sentiments and emotions.

So as not to bias the responses, we started with an open-ended question asking fans if they thought Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup had been a success so far. Overall sentiment across the richly human responses was (to us!) unexpectedly positive:

But a closer look reveals that much of the positivity is the result of excitement about the quality of the football matches and the size of the global viewership.

Like this comment from a 37-year-old woman in Charlotte, NC:

Many others took a more critical view. Like this typical comment from an 18-year-old male in Atlanta:

Or even this devastating comment from a 58-year-old woman in Tampa:

Enormous US/UK differences in perception

The sentiment of the UK audiences was radically different from that of the US audiences. (Perhaps explained by differences in news coverage, the treatment of politics and human rights by sport commentators, or higher levels of geographical or even football literacy?)

Positive sentiment for American fans (about Qatar’s role as host) was 71% while positive sentiment for UK fans was only 35%, a 36-point gap! While Americans primarily felt ‘joy’ and ‘excitement,’ UK fans were mostly ‘cautious’ and ‘unsure.’

Here’s some pretty representative anger from a 47-year-old male from the Northeast of England:

(Incidentally there was a significant amount of support from both sides of the Atlantic for the decision to ban alcohol from stadiums. For those who mentioned “alcohol” or “beer,” the majority approved of the ban.)

Brand Qatar

We were also surprised to see the responses to this multiple choice question:

Only 24% of viewers thought that Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup had hurt the nation’s brand or global standing.

A majority of fans mentioned Qatar’s beauty, perceived competence in managing the event itself, and the idea that the ability to host a World Cup at all is already a kind of endorsement of a country’s image.

Like this 74-year-old male from Chicago:

Though a large minority of fans also mentioned that LGBTQ rights, the treatment of migrant laborers, and other issues were now more visible as a result of the World Cup.

Like this 39-year-old male from Los Angeles:

Or this 27-year-old female from the East of England:

Importantly, though, lots of fans simply didn’t know much about Qatar before the World Cup and were ‘joyful’ or ‘optimistic’ about the opportunity to learn more.

Like this 21-year-old female Londener:

Pack your bags?

Despite all of the controversy though, soccer fans are now slightly more likely to visit Qatar as tourists or businesspeople than they were before the World Cup:

The bottom-line

It’s still far too early to determine if Qatar’s big bet is a success or a failure. The answer to that question will require subsequent waves of research, for instance by targeting the investors, entrepreneurs, influencers, and national audiences that the Qatari State most cares about, or by examining the relative perceptions of Qatar and the other Emirates it sees itself as competing against.

To make the picture even more complex, people’s views of ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) issues are notoriously difficult to correlate with their actual behavior. The World Cup’s impacts on investment, tourist visits, and so on will play out over the long haul.

Here at Glimpse, we’ll be paying close attention. And we’ll always stand by our commitment to understanding the game beyond the pitch.

We believe that listening to the words, emotions, and sentiments of audiences is one of the best ways to generate actionable and predictive insights about the world. Stay tuned for more Glimpse studies on global political and economic trends, the vicissitudes of brand performance, and the state of the marketing and communications industries.