FIFA sponsors demand reform as experts counsel caution before withdrawing support

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Visa has become the first major FIFA sponsor to threaten to walk away from world football’s governing body after 14 past and present executives were charged with a range of corruption offences overnight.

Allegations levied by US investigators include officials taking bribes in return for media rights for the World Cup, and for marketing deals.

Despite the unfolding crisis, which FIFA has sought to play down as “good news”, local World Cup broadcaster SBS has effectively washed its hands of the scandal insisting it remains “committed to the game’s future and broadcasting The World Cup”.

“These matters are for FIFA to investigate,” SBS said in a statement, before expressing how “thrilled” it was to be exclusively broadcasting the “2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup that “is only days away”.

Visa’s demands that FIFA builds a “culture of strong ethical practices” comes after its former global PR and sponsorship marketing head Andrew Woodward penned an opinion piece for Mumbrella saying companies would be “mad” to turn their back on the football World Cup.

Writing in today’s Mumbrella, Andrew Woodward insisted fans follow the World Cup, not FIFA, and any brand who rips up its sponsorship contract would simply be presenting a rival with the opportunity to take over.

He claimed fans “don’t care about the corruption” and suggested the public support brands who stick by a sport.

However, other experts said marketers should be wary, and expect a backlash, particularly on social media.

The World Cup – or FIFA World Cup as the governing body demand it be known – has a number of global sponsors including Coca Cola, McDonalds, Visa and Budweiser. All have issued statements expressing concern after 14 current and former FIFA officials were charged amid allegations of corruption and bribery.

Woodward, who headed Visa’s brand and sponsorship marketing communications when, amid swirling rumours of corruption, Qatar was handed the 2022 World Cup, warned against any knee-jerk reaction.

“To those contemplating dumping the sponsorship, I ask, are you mad?” he wrote. “The FIFA World Cup is the most popular sporting event in the world. People love it. They don’t care about the corruption.

“They know there is some disgraceful behaviour at the top of the sport but they don’t care, they just want to watch football. Further, based on the evidence I saw, the public generally support sponsors who stick by a sport.”

He added: “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”.

Sean Callanan

Sean Callanan

But Sean Callanan, founder of Melbourne-based digital marketing specialist Sports Geek, said brands which remain affiliated with FIFA should expect a backlash.

“Sponsors will be looking closely at the investigation but I don’t expect them to make a quick decision as many have long term contracts in place,” he told Mumbrella.

“I doubt FIFA will be signing up any new sponsorships while this investigation takes place. Sponsors will pause or reconsider campaigns affiliated with FIFA for a short while and from a digital point of view. Sponsors will be monitoring social media channels as some backlash towards them may be coming soon.”

Andrew Condon, director and head of marketing at sport and entertainment consultancy Gemba, said the public differentiate between football’s administrators and the sport itself.

“Gemba’s view is that consumers will see these sorts of things for what they are. Our insights consistently indicate that consumers differentiate between the administration of sports and the actual sport itself so while people will have a negative perception of the FIFA executive their love of the game will not diminish,” he said.

“We have seen this consistently with both corruption, drug and behaviour related issues. We would expect sponsors, as Coca-Cola and Adidas have done both publicly and privately, to maintain pressure on FIFA to make the necessary reforms to their organisations.”

Visa was the only sponsor to publicly threaten to withdraw its backing.

“Our disappointment and concern with FIFA in light of today’s developments is profound,” the company said in a statement. “As a sponsor, we expect FIFA to take swift and immediate steps to address these issues within its organization. This starts with rebuilding a culture with strong ethical practices in order to restore the reputation of the games for fans everywhere.

Screen Shot 2015-05-28 at 1.17.38 PM“Visa became a sponsor of FIFA because the World Cup is one of the few truly global sporting events with the power to unite people from around the world through a common love of football.

“Our sponsorship has always focused on supporting the teams, enabling a great fan experience, and inspiring communities to come together and celebrate the spirit of competition and personal achievement – and it is important that FIFA makes changes now, so that the focus remain on these going forward. Should FIFA fail to do so, we have informed them that we will reassess our sponsorship.

Coca Cola also went hard at FIFA saying the “lengthy controversy” over allegations of corruption “has tarnished the mission and ideals of the FIFA World Cup”.

“We have repeatedly expressed our concerns about these serious allegations,” the company said. “We expect FIFA to continue to address these issues thoroughly. FIFA has stated that it is responding to all requests for information and we are confident it will continue to cooperate fully with the authorities.”

McDonald’s also expressed its concern, albeit in a less forthright manner.

The troubled fast food giant said: “We continue to encourage FIFA and its leadership to reform and strengthen the game of football around the world and expect that the current issues will be resolved in the best interest of the game.”

Steve Jones


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