The England soccer team’s unexpected run to the brink of the World Cup final has left the Wimbledon Tennis Championships with a conundrum ahead of the Grand Slam tournament’s culmination on Sunday.
The men’s singles final at Wimbledon is scheduled to begin at 2pm BST. However, the World Cup final is due to begin in Moscow just two hours later at 4pm BST.
Since 2002, the average length of the men’s final has been two hours and 53 minutes, meaning that tennis fans would miss the entirety of the first half of the soccer showpiece. The longest final in the tournament’s history came in 2008, when Spain’s Rafa Nadal beat Switzerland’s eight-time Wimbledon champion Roger Federer in four hours and 48 minutes. Only two of the last 16 finals have lasted less than two hours – the gap between the start of Sunday’s two sporting spectacles.
For Wimbledon’s broadcasts domestically England’s position in the World Cup – semi-finalists and guaranteed to be playing either in Saturday’s third-place playoff or Sunday’s final– has added a further layer to the dilemma. Both the women’s and men’s singles finals would clash with the World Cup matches and result in a downturnin viewership for the tennis.
Wimbledon organisers, however, have remained defiant in the face of pressure to reschedule the final for an earlier start.
Mick Desmond, commercial and media director at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (AELTC) said: “You know, our tournament (final) always starts at two o'clock - we'll start at two o'clock.”
He added: “It's slightly surprising Fifa had the idea of kick-off at four o'clock. It's not something they've done in the past, but that's the decision.
“There was dialogue (between Wimbledon and Fifa) and there was dialogue between the broadcasters.
“I think broadcasters who've got both sets of rights were concerned. At the end of the day, Fifa decided to do that.”
Richard Lewis, chief executive of the AELTC, said: "We are a sold-out event and there's massive interest. There are absolutely no plans to change anything.
"We didn't have one single complaint of anybody here feeling that the football interfered with their enjoyment of Wimbledon. We have free public Wi-Fi in many areas, so if people want to watch quietly on their phone or tablet they are able to do so."
A spokesperson for Fifa dismissed the Wimbledon clash, stating that the decision to stage the World Cup final at 4pm BST (6pm in Moscow) had been made in 2015, with reaching as wide a global audience as possible a key reason for the timing. The game gets underway at 8am on the US west coast and a still manageable 11pm in Beijing.
Fans on Wimbledon's Centre Court peer into a commentary box to catch a glimpse of England's victory over Sweden in the World Cup quarter-final
A Fifa spokesman said on the matter: “We got the question a long time ago and we answered the question a long time ago.
“The kick-off times for the Fifa World Cup were set in co-operation with a range of stakeholders and taking into account a number of aspects such as the global broadcast market and feasibility for the fans - both in terms of attending the matches and reaching a wide TV audience.
“Following those discussions, it was decided on December 3, 2015 that the 2018 Fifa World Cup final match will take place at 6pm (Moscow time).”
Wimbledon’s stubbornness comes despite forecasts that the tennis final could be among the least watched in the competition’s history, with English spectators opting to watch the World Cup final.
During England’s victory over Sweden in the World Cup quarter-final, Wimbledon’s iconic Centre Court was two thirds empty at times, with the Royal Box almost entirely vacant. Fans queued for ‘exit wristbands’, which allow for re-entry to the tennis club’s grounds later in the day, so that they could watch England’s match from local pubs and bars. Remarkably, one of the few who stayed to watch the action at SW19 was 1966 World Cup winner Sir Bobby Charlton.
Wimbledon, however, is set to remain a soccer-free zone, with organisers announcing that they do not intend to show the final – not even on the huge screen that hangs outside Court One. In previous years, stewards have been instructed to remove fans who have used their mobile devices to stream coinciding soccer matches.
England’s second-round penalty shootout victory over Colombia raked in more than 24 million viewers, with analysts predicting that the figure would rise dramatically if England were to reach Sunday’s final.
Other sports have adapted their plans around the international soccer showpiece. The Tour de France, for example, pushed back its start from the first week of July to the second and English country cricket club Yorkshire even rescheduled their Twenty20 Blast game against Derbyshire to avoid a clash with Wednesday night’s semi-final.
The final evening of the inaugural Athletics World Cup at London’s Olympic Stadium may also be affected by the World Cup final. However, the event is due to start at 7pm BST, meaning that spectators should not miss out on either the soccer or athletics.