FIFA is in crisis but you’d be mad to give up a sponsorship

Andrew WoodwardFIFA has been thrown into chaos after the arrest of officials over claims of corruption in football. But former Visa global sponsorship head Andrew Woodward argues while change is needed sponsors would be mad to dump the organisation now.

Around the world today, PR folks in places like San Francisco, Seoul , Chicago, Nuremberg, St Louis and Atlanta are fielding calls from breathless journalists asking if they will continue their sponsorship of the FIFA World Cup.

Meanwhile, marketing is on the phone as social media is turning over at pace as people say things like “I am going to boycott your product unless you dump FIFA”.

The cities mentioned are the homes of the some of the big sponsors of the most prestigious sporting event in the world. In the offices of companies like Visa, Kia Hyundai, McDonalds, Adidas, Budweiser and Coca-Cola, these same PR folks are being summoned to the C-suite to discuss the company’s response while others ponder whether their sponsorship should continue. Then there’s the question of how to respond on the company Facebook page.

McDonald’s is a major World Cup sponsor

I should know, I was one of these “PR folks” in the same position in 2011, soon after FIFA awarded the right to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar respectively.

At the time, I was Visa’s global head of brand and sponsorship marketing communication based in San Francisco. The rumpus on this particular occasion concerned allegations of corruption involving Qatar’s ultimately successful bid. Calls came in like canon balls every few hours from the poison pens of Fleet Street; social media turned into a sewer; people poked their heads through my office door. I was playing corporate whac-a-mole.

I am sure some of the C-levels in these offices are seriously contemplating dumping the sponsorship. Others might think they need to issue a ‘strongly worded statement’. Others will resolve to let it pass, just like they have with the other ‘scandals’ involving FIFA, which are as regular the start of a new football season.’

To those contemplating dumping the sponsorship, I ask: ARE YOU MAD? The FIFA World Cup is the most popular sporting event in the world. People love it. They don’t care about the corruption.

Yes, really. They know it has been going on for decades. Give the public some credit, they know there is some disgraceful behaviour at the top of the sport but they don’t care, they just want to watch football. The public can separate the issues. Further, based on the evidence I saw, the public generally support sponsors who stick by a sport.

The general rule of thumb is that well executed sponsorship returns a 20 per cent better result than conventional marketing. Why would you want to give this up?

The Tour de France should have died years ago given its nearly annual drug scandals. It didn’t. Why? Its followers are passionate. Closer to home, Rugby League has its annual scandals. It goes from strength to strength. Why? Its followers are passionate. They love the ‘footy’ and that’s all they care about. Give the public some credit. They’re intelligent. They know what they like. They know the place of sponsors in all of this.

Should, “we” issue a ‘strongly worded statement’? My advice, nope. Sports governing bodies have long memories. They remember those that support them. They are cold toward those that don’t. You have the separate the elected or appointed senior officials of sports governing bodies from the management. Some of the appointed officials may by jailed and or stood down but the management will remain.

While a group of you may be top levels sponsors, members within this group are treated differently. Those that stick by the sport get special opportunities and better treatment. Those that don’t get the standard opportunities and transactional relationships.

So, what should the PR folks be doing today? Very simply they should firstly kill any talk of dumping the sponsorship. Why? There’s a queue of competitors waiting to take your place. They get it. Secondly, they should have a tight one line statement for mainstream and social media saying something along the lines of “We’re a sponsor of football because we support football. We will leave the administration of the game to the administrators and fans of the game”. That’s it; no more; phone off; go to lunch.

Irrespective of the corruption issues besetting the organisation, one of FIFA’s problems is that it thinks there’s brand equity in the word “FIFA”. They think the sponsors are buying this. They’re not, they’re buying the “World Cup”. Following this latest scandal, FIFA needs to do what some of its current and past sponsors have been urging for years.

That is, building equity in the “Football World Cup” rather than the “FIFA World Cup”. You never see or hear the phrase “IOC Olympic Games” do you? The IOC, which as an organisation has had its share of scandals, seems to do quite well without promoting itself. Best practise is for sports governing bodies to keep its name away from its showpiece events as to protect them from inevitable problems.

FIFA needs to go a step further. It needs to develop a standard symbol for the tournament. Just like the Olympic Games has its five rings emblem, the FIFA World Cup needs its own but without the four letters of pain F-I-F-A. Sponsors pushed for this a few years ago.

They came up with a symbol featuring just the cup and it was pushing up through the FIFA organisation and headed for release. At the final hurdle, it was rejected by, you guessed it, Sepp Blatter. More than anything else, some good will come from this scandal. Leadership will change, because it has to. More transparent bidding will come, because it has to. Baddies will go, because they have to. FIFA today is where the IOC was 20 years ago.

There are some great sports administrators in the world. There are some terrible sports administrators in the world. There are some corrupt sports administrators in the world. All sports have had their scandals – baseball, cricket, cycling and football. They survive. They survive thanks to their traditions, their fans and the quality of their sport. In this latest case, football has the best of all three and will not just survive but indeed thrive. Olé, Olé, Olé.

  • Andrew Woodward is a marketing consultant and former global head of brand and sponsorship communication for Visa Inc

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