Hey sponsors, how’s that fist shaking at FIFA going for you?

Andrew Woodward, Sports Business Consultant
and former global head of Visa’s brand and sponsorship communication
program (@_andrewwoodward and andrew@awconsulting.net.au).

The FIFA World Cup and football are about to
become an even more lucrative property to sponsors as the world governing body
of the sport exorcises itself from the clutches of its outgoing President Sepp
Blatter and the horrid culture he will take with him.

If I were a sponsor now, I would be pretty
happy. If I was a potential sponsor, I would be accelerating my efforts to get
on the football bus and get a deal signed before others do. Despite its best
efforts, FIFA has made the World Cup and associated tournaments like the Women’s
and age related World Cups a gold plated sponsorship property. When Blatter
goes; the governance is fixed and, necessary transparency introduced, the FIFA
World Cup will become platinum plated – probably with a diamond on top. It got
its gold standard through fans love of football; broadcasters seeing the
opportunity; top tier countries wanting to be the best in the world and,
minnows ‘having a go’, like we saw in June when a spirited
Kyrgastan took on the Socceroos in a 2018 World Cup qualifier in Bishkek.

Three months ago I wrote that FIFA was in the PR
toilet, when news broke of arrests of more than ten officials for corruption.
Rather than going upwind from the stench, some of the sponsors decided spend a
penny; loiter with intent and, give a running commentary on how bad the stench
was. They made themselves media, public and social media targets and directly
associated themselves with the issue. I wrote at the time that I thought they
were dumb for doing this. Some even said they were reconsidering their
association with FIFA and the World Cup, to which I asked “ARE
YOU MAD?”. Why would you do this is, when:

  • The public largely don’t care about the shenanigans at FIFA, they
    just want football and love it.
  • The public know elements of football and some of its merry men and
    women are questionable.
  • You as a sponsor have already invested a billion dollars in rights
    acquisition and activation.
  • You as a sponsor won’t activate and associate with the game
    until 2017 or 2018 (and you wouldn’t compete against Rugby World Cup 2015,
    Euro 2016 and the Rio Olympics in 2016).
  • Any clever marketer knows it will become an even more valuable
    property, for all of the reasons I mentioned.

On the positive side, let’s
look at what has happened since the arrests and announcement by Mr Blatter that
he was stepping down. The Women’s World Cup has come and gone. It broke
attendance and viewership records. The USA, Japan, Germany and England made the
final four and the next door neighbour of the host took home the silverware, to
the most lucrative sports sponsorship market in the world. I didn’t
hear any complaints about this. The big European clubs went on their world
tours to the Americas, Asia and Australia, hoovering up every dollar in every
city as they went. I didn’t hear any complaints about this. COPA América
(the South America version of the Euro or Asian Cup) came and went. I heard no
rumblings about that (except from Argentina). The European leagues, such as the
English Premier League, started again in August with no sight or mention of
FIFA, except on the referees badges. All is well in the world of football. It
is business as usual and getting bigger and better.

Three months on I ask sponsors “How’s
that fist shaking going?” I answer it with another question “WHAT
THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?”. The sponsors are still at it – they’ve
bought a bigger share of the problem. Sponsors are responsible for less than a
third of FIFA’s income. They’re taking a disproportionate share of the

  • Visa on 24 July 2015: “We seek to partner with those who think
    and act like us. I don’t believe that Fifa is living up to these standards.
    Furthermore, their subsequent responses are wholly inadequate and continue to
    show its lack of awareness of the seriousness of the changes which are needed.
    ” (Source:
  • McDonalds on 18 July 2015: “At McDonald’s, we know our customers around the world are passionate about
    football, and we share their enthusiasm. That
    ’s why we’ve sponsored the World
    Cup globally for more than 20 years. But recent allegations and indictments
    have severely tarnished Fifa in a way that strikes at the very heart of our
    ” (Source: Guardian)
  • Coca-Cola on 17 July 2015: “We believe that establishing this
    independent commission will be the most credible way for Fifa to approach its
    reform process and is necessary to build back the trust it has lost. We are
    calling for this approach out of our deep commitment to ethics and human rights
    and in the interest of seeing Fifa succeed.
    ” (Source: Guardian)

The words and sentiment are fine but what’s
to be gained by doing it? You only keep your name associated with the issue and
set yourself up as the public adjudicator on the process. Why are they giving a
running commentary on this? Certainly, there are campaigns by the union or
labour  movement and anti-corruption
groups and these seek to leverage sponsors. But surely after one succinct
statement, they should just keep quiet until after the reform process is
underway and a new President is in place. A simple statement like “We
welcome the proposed reforms and look forward to a new era for FIFA when new
leadership takes the reigns in February next year”. That would
have got them by from mid-June until the end of February.

In the other corner, we have FIFA saying the
corruption scandal is putting off new World Cup sponsors and plans to hold a
summit with existing backers this month. The BBC
reported FFIA Secretary-general Jerome Valcke saying: “The current
situation doesn’t help to finalise any new agreements
.” Well,
of course not! If I were a potential sponsor, I would take out an option or
heads of agreement with FIFA now and confirm arrangements once the new
President takes office in February. And what’s the rush,
anyway? As I said, any sponsor won’t start activating for until for another
two years. 

A few weeks ago, my 11 year old son and I flew
from Sydney to Melbourne in Australia to see Real Madrid play Manchester City.
Like just under 100,000 the people, we paid A$200 (US$150) to see some of the
greatest football talent on earth. As I looked around at the heaving Melbourne
Cricket Ground, I thought to myself, no one here is either talking about FIFA
or cares about the organisation of the game. These people love football. That
night to me was the lesson of all of this. Let the sponsors be sponsors; the on
field be the on field; the fans be the fans and, the organisers be the
organisers. I am not saying don’t care about the administration of the game
or don’t campaign against corruption. Likewise, football has some of the
best administrators in the world and there are some good people at FIFA. I am
saying, keep it all in perspective. When you work in the corporate head office
as I did, you get very accustomed to pontificating from up on high. It is easy
to lose your perspective when your annual salary is a rounding error on the annual
marketing budget. You get the research, the post campaign reports, the media
monitoring and endless PowerPoint presentations and briefing papers. However,
it is all without context. Context is critical. Have a look in a sports store –
it is full of racks of football shirts; look at the stats for most popular
websites – many are football; look in any park on a Saturday or Sunday; look at
the sports TV coverage – football features wall to wall and, go and sit in
grandstands, as I did in Melbourne the other week, and ask yourself one very
simple question – Would my company be better off associating itself with this
game?  A yes is a win for your company
and brand. A no is an own goal and a win for your competition. Football makes
good business sense, when the time is right.


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