Just 50 days out from one of the world’s biggest sporting events, brands still appear reluctant to get on board as FIFA World Cup sponsors or sound the whistle on their campaigns.
Ahead of the World Cup in Brazil in 2014, sponsors were touting their campaigns months in advance, signing up the stars of the game and getting their messages ready for the tournament. But this year, just weeks out from the start, few sponsors have started talking about their plans, with most brands telling Marketing Week that they won’t be ready to do so until much closer to the start of the tournament.
FIFA has also struggled to fill its three tiers of sponsorship for the World Cup and its financial health has taken a hit – with the company estimated to have filed losses of £400m in 2017.
There are eight spots for top-tier partners, six spots for normal sponsors and another 20 opportunities for regional supporters; but currently many of these deals remain unsigned. At the time of writing, FIFA had filled seven of the top eight spots with stalwarts such as Visa, Coca-Cola and Adidas, as well as newcomer Qatar Airways. Likewise, the second tier is almost full with Hisense joining the likes of McDonald’s.
However, FIFA’s biggest challenge is getting regional sponsors to join the third group – just three companies had signed up at the beginning of April and time is running out to sign up another 17.
Just yesterday (23 April), FIFA did bring state-controlled Russian diamond miner Alrosa on board as a regional sponsor, completing its slate of third-tier European backers. But the other regional slots for North and Central America, South America, Africa and the Middle East, and Asia are still empty.
It is not hard to see why brands might be more cautious this time around.
The allegations of corruption and bribery that have dogged FIFA over the past few years have not gone away. It has struggled to attract Western sponsors, with companies such as Sony and Johnson & Johnson opting not to renew deals after the 2014 event. That has left FIFA reliant on Chinese firms such as Alibaba, Hisense and Yadea, most of which are not brands with global cachet.
And now geopolitical events are threatening to overshadow this year’s tournament. Russia’s support of Syria in its civil war, accusations it attempted to assassinate a former spy with a nerve agent on British soil and ongoing investigations into its role in influencing democratic elections could all reflect poorly on sponsors.
Russia’s anti-LGBTQ policies are also of concern, while BAME players such as Ivorian Yaya Touré have raised concerns over racism and warned that black players could boycott the World Cup unless Russia addresses the issue.
As if that weren’t enough, for the tournament itself Russia’s 11 time zones and its sheer size present significant logistical challenges.
Given the tarnished reputations of both FIFA and Russia, it is not surprising marketers are questioning if the risks will outweigh the benefits. None of the sponsors Marketing Week contacted was willing to address these issues.
But they are clearly weighting on brands’ minds.
People are absurdly passionate about football, it creates a connective tissue.
James Kirkham, Copa90
Yet James Kirkham, head of football media network Copa90, believes while pre-tournament events will “no doubt cast a shadow”, they will cause “lateness rather than abstinence” among both football fans, sponsors and brands more generally.
“People are absurdly passionate about football, it creates a connective tissue,” he adds.
It is that passion that brands hope to tap into. According to a survey of more than 80,000 people by research firm GlobalWebIndex, 47% of the global online population will watch the World Cup either online or on TV. In Latin America that figure climbs to 65% (but is only 23% in North America).
And its appeal extends well beyond normal football fans. For…