World Cup soccer fans turning more to cellphones

DETROIT (Reuters) - The billions of fans of soccer’s World Cup, globally the premiere sporting event, will increasingly turn to mobile phones to track the action, according to a Nielsen survey released on Thursday.

More than half of the 27,000 people surveyed in 55 countries plan to follow the popular soccer tournament, which is played every four years and begins in South Africa on June 11, Nielsen said in a survey provided to Reuters. Twenty-one percent said they would get information about the tournament on their mobile device and 9 percent would download an application to track the action.

“This event is the biggest in the world of sports by far,” Roger Entner, Nielsen’s senior vice president for mobile insights, said in a telephone interview. “In 2010, mobile is really starting to be a medium for soccer fans worldwide to connect with the game.”

The popular FIFA soccer tournament drew more than 700 million TV viewers when it was last played in 2006, including more than 120 million U.S. viewers who watched at least one minute of World Cup telecasts, Nielsen said.

While this is the first such Nielsen survey, Entner said the numbers using cellphones to follow the event will be far higher than 2006.

"The last World Cup, there was no iPhone," he said of Apple Inc's AAPL.O popular smartphone introduced in 2007.

U.S. smartphone penetration has surged to 22 percent from 3.8 percent four years ago, he said. In France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK the rate has grown to a range of 21 percent to 36 percent from 4 percent to 10 percent in 2006.

With more powerful, faster devices and networks, those growth trends will only continue with widespread mobile video and TV being the next step, Entner said.

Of those surveyed, 51 percent said they intend to follow the tournament, including 84 percent in Brazil, 83 percent in Argentina, 76 percent in South Korea, 75 percent in Italy and Portugal, 69 percent in Zambia and almost two-thirds of the people in China, Nielsen said.

“It’s mind blowing. It really shows how it is a global phenomenon,” Entner said. “We see some of the highest intended usage rates actually coming out of the Middle East, Africa and the Pacific Rim.”

Countries with high planned cellphone use to access World Cup information include Venezuela (27 percent), United States (23 percent) and Brazil (21 percent), Nielsen said. In fact, in every country in the Middle East and Africa where people were surveyed, the rate was between 22 percent and 30 percent.

“People intend to use mobile to supplement their hunger for information about the game,” Entner said. “If you can’t watch the game live, you’re going to follow it through your mobile device.”

The rates in Europe were far lower -- 3 percent in soccer powers Germany and Spain -- which Entner thought made sense given most of those countries were in the same time zone as the World Cup and had a higher penetration of TV sets, meaning fans could watch the game live more easily.

Finally, 34 percent of those surveyed picked Brazil as the likely Cup winner, easily outdistancing Argentina, England and Germany. Entner is rooting for his native Germany but has picked Brazil.

Reporting by Ben Klayman; Editing by Steve Orlofsky