FIFA's Sponsor Issue Isn't Just Corruption, But Brand Indifference

As FIFA hosts the World Cup draw in The Kremlin on Friday, the smiles of former stars and the inevitable gasp at the "group of death" will be overshadowed for marketers by a massive issue.

This time it isn't just about FIFA corruption, or even that of the host nation for the 2018 host nation, Russia. While both are a major factor that is being touted as the reason for the difficulty it is facing in signing up World Cup sponsors, I'd suggest there is a third even more pressing issue -- indifference. Sponsorship doesn't actually buy brands a great deal, so why bother?

True -- corruption is the kind of issue no brand wants to be associated with, and it may be hard to think of a more tainted organisation and host nation than a combination of FIFA staging its premiere event in Russia. Who knows how Russia and Qatar won the rights to the the 2018 and 2022 competitions -- but it's no surprise that there are suggestions of corruption, given that FIFA was so clearly riddled with backhanders and bribes for so long that even the Teflon man himself, Sepp Blatter, had to be booted out. 

So, the 2018 World Cup was always going to struggle for sponsorship. However, the underlying trend is that sponsorship appears a rather high price for a negligible rise in brand awareness. Fifa is still looking for a GBP100m partner and a GBP50m sponsor for the 2018 event. Of the 32 regional supporter sponsorships across the globe, it's offering just one that has been snapped up, and even then only by a Russian bank. These are believed, by Marketing Week, to be up for grabs for GBP8m each -- although the magazine suggests they must surely plummet in price before next June or risk a huge embarrassment for Fifa. 

I would suggest that in addition to the obvious brand image implications of being associated with both Fifa and Russia, the elephant in the room is that nobody cares who the sponsors are and nobody can even recall them. Savvy brands run football-based campaigns, often involving sports stars they sponsor, to coincide with a World Cup or Euro Championships. Pepsi is a past master at this, ruffling the feathers of official sponsor Coca-Cola. Nike and Adidas do the same to each other. 

Remember Euro 2016? When a thousand people who like football were asked to name its sponsors, only one of their top five answers was correct. Only 12% of those surveyed correctly identified Coca-Cola as a sponsor.

The real clincher for any brand marketer, however, is that just 10% knew Nike was an official partner -- and to rub salt in to the wound, 9% actually thought it was Adidas. Would you want to pay a rumoured GBP100m for a 1% lift in brand association with a World Cup run by an organisation with corruption issues, hosted by Ukraine-occupying, fake-news-spreading Russia?

And there is more. Police forces are deeply concerned about Russian football hooligans staging repeats of the trouble that marred Euro 2016 in France. England fans are, again, their prime target. Yesterday, the worst possible scenario occurred in the practice draw. The first name out of the hat to play the hosts in the opening game was England. The carnage if that were to be repeated in the real draw on Friday would be unimaginable. 

Nationalist Russian thugs and corruption issues aside, however, I suspect Fifa would be struggling for sponsors anyway. In the days of social media and mass television advertising, nobody even knows who has paid GBP100m to be an official partner, and who has just spent one million on a campaign to make it look like they're more involved than they truly are. 

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