It’s a PR calamity right? But a great story. On Wednesday at around 5.30 AM Swiss police arrested nine FIFA officials and began proceedings to extradite them to the US. The FBI and the Justice Department described a long list of indictments including racketeering, money laundering and bribery. Colourful stories emerged about former FIFA Executive Committee member Chuck Blazer who, after being exposed for tax fraud, turned informant and wore wire taps in meetings with FIFA executives at the London Olympics. Back in Switzerland, a separate investigation has begun into the awarding of the 2018 (Russia) and 2022 (Qatar) World Cups.
FIFA President Sepp Blatter, likely to be re-elected today, talked of FIFA’s reputation being “dragged through the mud” – but refused to resign.
But from a marketing perspective – where does that leave FIFA’s sponsors?
VISA quickly issued a strongly worded statement: “Our disappointment and concern with FIFA in light of today’s developments is profound…it is important that FIFA makes changes now”. “Should FIFA fail to do so, we have informed it that we will reassess our sponsorship.” Similar, though less threatening statements emerged from Adidas, Coca Cola (“This lengthy controversy has tarnished the mission and ideals of the FIFA World Cup”) Hyundai (“extremely concerned”) and McDonalds (the news from the US Department of Justice is extremely concerning”).
So will any of these giants pull their support from FIFA? Marketing web site Brand Republic ran a story this morning entitled Who will replace FIFA’s ‘tarnished’ sponsors? The sums involved are considerable. It is estimated that each of these players is investing at least £20 million a year for their various sponsorship rights and deals, mostly relating to the World Cup.
The answer is almost certainly no. That’s because the property they are sponsoring is not FIFA. That is merely the administrative facilitator. They are supporting the game and the events. Note how Coca Cola’s statement refers to the mission and ideals not of FIFA but of the World Cup. Nobody is saying the World Cup is less important because FIFA is corrupt (which is hardly new news in any case). The real properties being supported have not been tarnished, even if the people who govern them have.
Interestingly, recent World Cups have been sometimes referred to as ‘The FIFA World Cup’. This was always a mistake. And nobody in the real world (fans rather than broadcasters given an official script) has ever referred to it as the FIFA World Cup.
There is a caveat. If the furore over FIFA reaches such a frenzy, there could be a point where the reputation benefit from publicly and loudly walking away from the sponsorship achieves more good for the sponsoring brand than the sponsorship itself. This is frankly unlikely.
I predict that the only sponsors who walk away from FIFA will be those who are disillusioned at the economic returns they are getting. It is already difficult to justify these sponsorships in terms of ROI, they tend to be more ‘vanity’ or ‘profile’ driven. The current furore woud offer a neat story around a withdrawal.
But these are strategic associations rooted in long term brand building, not short term grandstanding.
Frankly, if I had been advising any of these brands, I would have advised the association with football is at best a risky reputational investment and at worst, a negative association. The beautiful game has in recent years become the cynical game. But if you want to create an association with the biggest, most prestigious, universal and popular asset in the sporting world, buying into football at the highest level is the biggest game in town. And that’s got very little to do with FIFA, however much we, in the chattering classes love to hate them.