Last week, the south american soccer federation known as CONMEBOL submitted a formal request to FIFA to increase the number of teams from 32 to 48 for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. This expansion to 48 teams had not been expected to begin until the 2026 tournament.
This is great news right? A win-win, more teams, more soccer who could possibly be against this. Well me for one. Blasphemy, right? Bigger is better, more is well more, and more is always better. Or is it?
More teams will mean less quality, significance, and drama
There are 195 countries in the world. 32/195 = 16%. It is special to make the greatest soccer tournament ever and only a select few countries who are good enough make it. The fact that it is not easy and that countries can miss getting in only adds to the games. Look even countries with rich football histories like Italy missed out this time. This exclusivity factor increases drama. Likewise, it adds that much more importance and significance to the event.
48/195 = 25%. So now a quarter of the world will be making the World Cup. That is ridiculous. It makes qualifying a joke and diminishes the years long process of fighting for enough points to gain entrance into the tournament. Anyone pumped for that Algeria vs Greece game? Pure and simple if your not good enough to qualify for a 32 team tournament you do not deserve to be there.
You only need to look at other sports to see how by adding more teams you get less quality and less importance. The NBA and NHL let 16 teams (half the league!) into the playoffs, significantly diminishing anyone except die hard fans from getting excited for a regular season game. College basketball may be the worse offender. 68 of the 351 division one college basketball programs make the season ending tournament. When was the last time you watched a regular season NCAA basketball game (not at a bar)?
Think about that for a minute. FIFA is proposing to take a higher percentage (25%) of teams then NCAA tournament (68/351 = 19%). The proposed system would be 16 groups with three teams in each group. Then the top two teams in each group progress to a 32-team knockout stage. This again diminishes the games in the group stage, further scrubbing the shine off what is really perfect format.
Here is what 2018 in Russia might look like:
Make no mistake the group stage soccer will be worse, way worse and not just because of the diluted quality of the teams. With two out of three countries moving past the group stage the last game of the group could feature two teams that know exactly what result is needed in order to move on. In the example above, say USA is playing Croatia last in Group M play and they know that a 0-0 game will guarantee both move on to the knockout round. Anyone want to see that game? It will be a park the bus take no chances snoozefest.
Don’t believe the quality will decline? Look no further than the prime example: 2016 Euros. The group stage games were filled with bad soccer.
More teams might actually mean less viewers
Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper are well known psychologists who produced one of the more famous studies in the realm of customer psychology. Published in 2000, it is known as the “Jam Study”. The researchers first set up a display table in a grocery store with 24 different flavors of jam. People who taste-tested the samples got a coupon for $1 off the price of a jar if they decided to make a purchase. The next day, they set up the exact same table but this time with only 6 varieties and again gave out the $1 off coupon to customers who tried out the jams.
What they found was fascinating. Customers who sampled the 6 varieties of jams were ten times more likely than the people who tried the 24 types to use the coupon and actually buy the jam. Less choices equalled more sales. More choices equalled less sales. This study has been replicated many times over in many settings and products and has become known as the “Paradox of Choice” because more choices/options should lead to more customer satisfaction and ultimately in business to more sales.
What psychologists have started to realize is that if you give people more choices they have to spend more time and effort making that decision, which they may not be willing to do. Furthermore, more options actually place a psychological dilemma on a person, because they now have an increased chance to make a wrong choice and thus more risk to regret that decision. They also call this “Choice Paralysis” and often what can happen is that the more choices you put in front of someone, the less likely they are to actually make a choice at all.
Now I understand that fans will follow their team no matter what. If you were born in Mexico, your watching every El Tri game no matter how many countries are represented in the World Cup. Moreover, if you are a diehard footballer and always watch every game your habit won’t change. But with the increased teams and games the casual soccer viewers might fall into this paralysis of choice. Worse yet they could choose not to watch because there are too many games/choices.
This is about money and power
Let us call a spade a spade.
Hilariously, FIFA president Gianni Infantino has argued that the expansion of teams allowed into the World Cup will increase world wide interest in the game. By “interest” he means money. The idea is that you could tap into larger markets that don’t necessarily have huge soccer fan bases (India, China, etc.). The projected increase in revenue by expanding to 48 teams is 1 billion (with a “b”) with a net of 640 million in profits which FIFA has promised to reinvest in “football”, whatever that means. Of course it is difficult to trust FIFA with a billion dollar sales bump given their past misdeeds.
Many significant clubs and people have come out against the expansion. The German football association (DFB) and European Club Association (ECA) have both heavily criticized the move saying the motivations are for “political reasons rather than sporting ones, and under considerable political pressure.” There are also concerns that qualifying will be longer and increase player demands away from their club teams, which are already high.