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

Andrew WoodwardSponsors who spoke out about FIFA have left themselves associated with the bad times that are past, not the good times to come, argues Andrew Woodward.

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.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter was showered in money by a British comedian at a press conference

FIFA president Sepp Blatter was showered in money by a British comedian at a press conference

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.

FIFA sponsors came under fire on social media after the revelations

FIFA sponsors came under fire on social media after the revelations

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 issue:

• 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: BBC)

• 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 sponsorship.” (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 FIFA 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 to see Real Madrid play Manchester City. Like just under 100,000 other 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.

  • Andrew Woodward is a sports business consultant and former global head of Visa’s brand and sponsorship communication program 

Andrew Woodward is moderating a panel on the FIFA fallout and implications for sponsors at the Mumbrella Sports Marketing Summit on September 9. For more details click the banner.

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