By Omar Mohammed*
Perhaps the most colorful of international soccer tournaments, the African Cup of Nations began on Saturday in Bata, Equatorial Guinea. On the pitch, a new champion is guaranteed after Nigeria was knocked out in the qualifiers and millions will be tuning in to find out who it will be—many for the first time.
Africa’s premier soccer event’s global popularity has exploded over the past decade. The success of players such as Samuel Eto’o, Didier Drogba, and Michael Essien, not to mention four-time African soccer player of the year Yaya Touré, in the world’s top leagues has raised the profile of African soccer.
“The growth can be explained by African soccer being more accessible on TV than it was a few years ago,” Salim Masoud Said, a London-based writer who has written on African soccer for the Daily Telegraph, ESPN and the BBC, told Quartz.
The African Cup of Nations in 2013 in South Africa attracted an estimated audience of 650 million people worldwide, up 65% from 2012, according to SportFive, a sports marketing firm. (The tournament is now held every two years, so there was no 2014 edition.) And this year could be even bigger.
Across Europe, fans have been watching the event live via the French cable sports channel, Eurosport, since 1994. But Eurosport now has to share the African Cup of Nations—in the UK, for example, ITV started coverage of the tournament in 2012, attracting a sizable audience.
The BBC first started broadcasting the event in 2002 and has promised comprehensive coverage of the tournament across multiple platforms for its global audience. Online, the Guardian has dedicated a special page focused on the tournament.
Meanwhile, in the US, digital channel ESPN 3 was the first channel to broadcast the tournament live in 2013. This year, the African Cup of Nations will be available on TV for the first time through beIN Sports, formerly known as Al-Jazeera Sports. Dishworld.com will be streaming the matches live as well.
“It shows what an important and relevant tournament this is,” Christopher Harris, the editor and publisher of WorldSoccerTalk.com, told Quartz. Harris adds that since the website’s founding in 2005, there has been growing interest in African soccer in America.
“In particular, soccer fans are interested in the national teams since we’re particularly enamored by their style of play in every World Cup.”
In the Middle East, beIN Sports has been showing the games since the 2010 tournament. They are also broadcasting the matches in Australia. Elsewhere in Asia, some are only just discovering the African version of the beautiful game. In the Indian subcontinent, fans will be able to see the African Cup of Nations live for the first time through Sony Six. Japanese fans are also going to be able to enjoy the tournamen with the national broadcaster, NHK, televising the matches.
In Africa, the growing middle classes through the continent have helped deepen TV penetration. Supersport, a South African-based cable channel, is taking full advantage, broadcasting the games to 49 countries, with a potential audience of 100 million people.
The Africa Cup of Nations, much like its European or Latin American equivalents before it, is becoming global through a growing TV audience, which is the lifeblood for the professional game.
All these fans are attracted to a brand of soccer that is free-form, compelling, and always unpredictable. In other words, uniquely African.