PERSPECTIVE: Internet has missed open goal with poor World Cup coverage

Down through the ages, wise men and women in advertising have vainly striven to understand seemingly inexplicable, apparently irrational human actions. Why does Peter Marsh keep asking those weird questions at the Thirty Club? And why can't all those poor buggers whose employers are too mean to install a few big screens watch the World Cup on the net?

Thanks to an interesting briefing from PricewaterhouseCoopers, it is this last question that will concern us here. You can imagine the reaction of most employers when it emerged that England's revenge match against Argentina will kick off at 12.30pm BST on Friday 7 June. During France '98, when 22 matches kicked off during the afternoon of a working day, the GMB trade union estimated that "sickies cost the UK economy some £400 million in lost business. This time round almost twice as many matches will kick off in the morning or afternoon of a working day.

Many ad agencies will turn a blind eye to the England matches and big screens will pop up in them across the UK. For those in less generous industries, those millions of frustrated football nuts sitting in front of their PCs during the tournament, there will be no live coverage of any World Cup match on the web. The rights holder to the 2002 World Cup - the Kirch Group on behalf of FIFA - is preventing live coverage on the net. This didn't deter Yahoo! from paying millions for the exclusive right to produce the official World Cup website, without live match coverage.

Instead, a few minutes of highlights from each match will be available on the website, some hours after the game, at a cost of $19.95.

As the European Commission investigates whether such policies by rights-sellers are anti-competitive, the internet's role as a sports broadcasting medium will continue to be the subject of debate. How big is the demand for online coverage? What will be the impact on TV audiences?

This last question is crucial. Broadcasters fear that if viewers are given an alternative means of watching a game, then TV ratings will drop and advertisers and sponsors would pay less for the product. But the biggest hurdle for live coverage on the net, as with most things technological, is the technology itself. Whereas broadcast TV rights are typically sold on a national basis, the internet is a worldwide medium. The technology required to prevent access by "foreign consumers to a website in the UK is not fully developed and the current picture quality from web-streaming live video is also poor.

By the 2006 World Cup, these technical limitations should have been overcome.

Free-to-air TV is almost certain to maintain its dominant position but the desire of internet providers and the competition authorities to shake things up can't be underestimated. In the meantime, enjoy your "sickies".