Just four months into 2006 and Campaign can exclusively reveal the identity of the most- watched TV show of the year. Assuming that our idea for a Naked Hollywood Celebrity Big Brother Shag-a-thon never makes it on to the schedules, the programme with the biggest audience in the UK in 2006 will be ... coverage of the match in which England is eliminated from the Fifa World Cup.
This prediction can be made with a high degree of confidence because in a world where media is fragmenting and audiences are dwindling, the World Cup is possibly the only mass medium that is actually becoming more massive. Study after study shows that only football - and the World Cup, in particular - has the power to unite the nation, all nations even, in a single, shared cultural experience.
The size of the audiences involved is formidable. There was not one single TV show last year that attracted an audience of more than 15 million. Yet England's games against France, Croatia and Portugal in Euro 2004 were the three most-watched broadcasts of that year, each attracting more than 20 million viewers. The quarter-final against Portugal attracted a peak audience of 25 million viewers at home and possibly two or three million more in pubs.
Figures for global audiences are notoriously unreliable. But 1.7 billion people are said to have watched the 1998 World Cup finals in France; the 2002 World Cup is said to have been watched a total of 28 billion times.
And it isn't just the young blokes you might expect, David Fletcher, the head of research at Mediaedge:cia, comments. "All four Euro 2004 matches were the most popular shows for children in the year and nearly half of the audience for big games is female."
The World Cup may be the biggest event in world TV, but it is only the most powerful example of the growing role of sport generally in mass market communications. According to an analysis by WPP media agencies, there were 1,753 new deals in 2005, a 20 per cent rise on 2004. Of these deals, 83 per cent were sports related, equating to £18 billion of investment.
Kevin Alavy, a senior futures analyst at Initiative, comments: "Elite events such as the World Cup, the Olympics and Formula One grand prix are unrivalled as a shared global interest. They provide a cultural glue that makes them more and more attractive as other media fragment. That is why they are retaining viewing better than other programming and why spending on sport as a comms channel is growing so rapidly."
The big sporting events this year include the Fifa World Cup, the Winter Olympics, the Commonwealth Games, Formula One, international cricket, Wimbledon and the Six Nations rugby. Given the length of this list, the key issues for brands appear to be distinguishing between events and working out which offers best value.
Simple enough questions, you might think. But the answers are uncertain and complex. Take the apparently straightforward issue of which event would have most value to an advertiser. "It depends on your definition of value," Alavy says. "It could mean the degree of association with the event, prompted or unprompted. It could mean the extent to which your brand has been exposed to the public. Alternatively, you define it in terms of changes in brand awareness, effects on attitudes to the brand and sales."
Even measuring something as basic as exposure can be problematic. Many brands approach sponsorship simply as a media buy (as opposed to emphasising the fit between the brand and the event), so they are particularly interested in assessing their brand's presence on screen.
But most sports have multiple sponsors and Initiative has found that not all sponsors receive equal airtime. "Rules about branding in the stadium, patterns of play and TV coverage, camera positioning and precisely how your logo is positioned on the team kit, can all have a significant effect on the brand's exposure and consequent definition of value," Alavy says.
Certainly, measuring the audience presents a welter of difficulties.
In many countries, audience measurement systems are not of the highest quality and they are certainly not uniform between countries.
But even if they were uniform, you would still have to decide whether to assess the total cumulative audience viewings (that is why big events can claim audiences several times the population of the planet), or to look at unique viewers - the number of different individuals who saw the event. And should you focus on peak viewing figures or average viewing?
And if you do that, should you look at how long people watched for? Should you choose mean or median or modal viewing figures, and so on?
"You need to define your terms very, very precisely indeed and treat claims about audience and value with great care," Alavy warns.
One thing is for certain though, Fletcher says. Audiences for the biggest events depend considerably on the location of the host nation. He cites the example of the Australian F1 Grand Prix in 2004, which drew a live UK audience of 742,000. When the F1 Championship came to the UK, ITV recorded a live audience of 4.4 million.
So audience, even if you can measure it, should not be considered the only source of "value". At least as significant are the brand values of the event itself. The World Cup, we know, has massive audiences that are growing as interest in football grows in the US and Asia and among women.
But it only occurs once every four years, sponsorship is expensive, coverage is not always favourable when there is hooliganism and, of course, the world and his dog will be telling football stories about their brand.
The Olympics, on the other hand, has nearly as big an audience. But it is fragmented over more sports, and viewing tends to be less sustained than the 90 minutes of a World Cup game. And, even though it is highly respected as an event, it doesn't generate the passion of football. In 2004, a mere 12.5 million tuned in to watch Kelly Holmes win her second gold medal. This is even more true of the Winter Olympics. And, of course, branding is not allowed in the stadium, so awareness of any deal has to be generated in other ways - on pack or with TV ad campaigns.
It's hardly surprising that brands fight for associations with Formula One. Global audiences are huge, there is high engagement and it's a glamorous and desirable competition. The main problems are that it is very expensive, seen as the domain of the very rich and, unless you own a team (like Red Bull), your six-figure sponsorship can get lost amid the clutter.
The Commonwealth Games seems to be an event whose time has passed. It offers good geographical reach and low entry costs mean sponsorship can be very good value. But it is overshadowed by the Olympics, generates only a mild passing interest and is often derided as the one chance the Brits have of a decent showing in a medals table.
The Ashes was the surprise success of last year, showing that sponsorship does have a lottery element to it. If your team or player performs particularly well, it can cross over from sport to cultural phenomenon. However, the Ashes this year is unlikely to be so high profile, primarily because it is in Australia. In any case, cricket cannot be said to be a sport with mass appeal, although it does have a huge following on the Indian subcontinent.
Finally, Six Nations rugby. Like cricket, it offers smaller but highly targeted sponsorship opportunities. It is a passionate sport, and exerts an eerie power over older middle-class men. But it is elitist rather than inclusive and has little appeal beyond the home nations.
The major sporting events all have strengths and weaknesses but, which-ever you chose, sponsorship tends to be only a fraction of the cost. Alavy counsels: "You'll have to spend another two or three times that amount making sure the world knows about it."
BY NUMBERS: THE MAJOR SPORTING EVENTS OF 2006 EVENT: World Cup ESTIMATED (GLOBAL) AUDIENCE: Fifa claims 28.8 billion in 213 countries in 2002. In the UK: 12.5 million (England games); 2.9 million (non-England games). Average: 7.5 million MAJOR SPONSORS: Budweiser, Coca-Cola, Adidas, McDonald's, Gillette, MasterCard, Hyundai, Phillips, Yahoo! SPONSOR RATECARD: Commercial confidentiality rules here, but headline sponsors expect to pay around £30 million VALUE TO ADVERTISERS: The guv'nor of sporting events. The most broad-based international TV audience possible. While other mass-market channels are in decline, it just keeps growing. 9.5/10 AUDIENCE PROFILE: Everyman and Everywoman. Audience is male - but only just. And surprisingly upmarket. Strongest showing though is among 18- to 34-year-olds of all classes MOST VALUABLE STAR: David Beckham, whose footballing talent is matched only by his talent for courting media attention EVENT: Commonwealth Games ESTIMATED (GLOBAL) AUDIENCE: Average: 0.8 million-1.1 million MAJOR SPONSORS: Foster's, Cadbury-Schweppes, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Konica Minolta SPONSOR RATECARD: The Australian telecoms company Telstra has paid $1 million to sponsor the next games in India in 2010 VALUE TO ADVERTISERS: Big but not premier league with patchy global coverage. Not aired in Canada, for instance. On the wane. 6.5/10 AUDIENCE PROFILE: Polarised between older women and younger hardcore athletics fans MOST VALUABLE STAR: Dean Macey, the gold-medallist Essex boy decathlete EVENT: The Olympics ESTIMATED (GLOBAL) AUDIENCE: Average: 1.7 million-2 million MAJOR SPONSORS: Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Kodak, Visa SPONSOR RATECARD: Top-level sponsors pay £40 million for one winter and one summer Olympics VALUE TO ADVERTISERS: The Winter Olympics come in the same package as the summer games. Not hugely popular in the UK. No in-stadium branding leads to the need for sizeable investment in other channels to leverage an association. 8/10 AUDIENCE PROFILE: The only event with larger female viewing. Particularly strong among upmarket ABs. Weak among 25- to 34-year-olds MOST VALUABLE STAR: Shelley Rudman, the silver medallist in women's bob skeleton EVENT: Formula One ESTIMATED (GLOBAL) AUDIENCE: Formula One claims every two-hour race is watched by 350 million people in 200-plus countries. Forecast audience for UK in 2006 is 2.5 million-3.2 million MAJOR SPONSORS: Red Bull, Jaguar, BMW, Toyota, Renault, Intel SPONSOR RATECARD: Team sponsor: for £10 million-£30 million, a company could have its brand included in the official title of the team, ie., West McLaren Mercedes VALUE TO ADVERTISERS: Formula One has a truly huge, global audience. Cleverly reconfiguring its races to cash in on increased interest in Asia. Male appeal may prevent it from providing universal water-cooler moments like the Fifa World Cup 9/10 AUDIENCE PROFILE: By far the most heavily male-biased event. Weak among the young, stronger among the middle aged. Has the highest proportion of DE viewers of all six events MOST VALUABLE STAR: Fernando Alonso may be the youngest-ever champion but Michael Schumacher is still the man EVENT: Six Nations rugby ESTIMATED (GLOBAL) AUDIENCE: 3.7 million-4.0 million MAJOR SPONSORS: Event sponsor: Royal Bank of Scotland SPONSOR RATECARD: RBS reportedly paid £40 million for its current six-year deal. England team sponsor O2 paid £12 million for a four-year deal VALUE TO ADVERTISERS: Audiences obviously limited to home nations. Even though viewers aren't exclusively male, the brand values of rugby are traditionally male, going on macho. Great for the right brands. 7/10 AUDIENCE PROFILE: Marked male bias, although the ladies clearly like a bit of man-on-man action; 44 per cent of viewers are women. Strong 45-plus and upmarket emphasis MOST VALUABLE STAR: Mike Tindall. His relationship with Zara Phillips takes him off the back pages and into the gossip columns EVENT: The Ashes ESTIMATED (GLOBAL) AUDIENCE: Average: 2.2 million; Live: 8.8 million (peak) MAJOR SPONSORS: Event sponsor: nPower; Team sponsor: Vodafone SPONSOR RATECARD: nPower: £3 million; Vodafone: £5 million VALUE TO ADVERTISERS: Excellent if you want to reach posh older blokes. And great if we happen to be winning. Audiences can shrivel to miniscule levels if the game is abroad or if we are doing badly. 6.5/10 AUDIENCE PROFILE: By far the most affluent, upmarket and 45-plus of the big sports. Chavs, lasses, the very poor and the very young hardly bother to watch. So no wastage ... MOST VALUABLE STAR: Andrew "Freddie" Flintoff