What Sony’s Red Card Means for FIFA and Disappointed Football Fans
So long Sony. The Japanese electronics behemoth has ditched FIFA – well, declined to renew its sponsorship of the international football cartel – and it’s the second major sponsor to do so following Emirates Airline. It’s kind of a satisfying end to a year that’s seen FIFA and the International Olympic Committee – and their brand sponsors – plagued by controversy. If 2014 has taught us anything it’s that massive sporting events aren’t the easy win for brands that they might appear to be.
The official line is that Sony’s decision not to maintain its relationship with FIFA is down to concerns about rising costs (the original eight year deal that kicked off in 2006 was reported to be worth £222 million). But the protracted rumble of corruption allegations that have plagued the decisions to hold the next World Cup tournaments in Russia and Qatar have led other high profile sponsors like Coca-Cola, Adidas, Visa and McDonald’s to openly criticise the organisation. And when you're spending such sizeable wads of cash, you don't really expect to have to deal with such hassle and public disapproval.
The debate flared up again last month when FIFA’s ethics judge Hans Joachim-Eckert claimed an internal investigation effectively cleared Russia and Qatar of any wrongdoing – only to be contradicted by the report’s lead investigator. This week’s allegations that one FIFA official had received – get this – a Picasso as a kick back can’t serve to keep the controversy in the headlines.
Whatever the truth of the matter, it’s not a great association for major sponsors. Adidas’ statement notably singled out the ‘negative tenor’ of the ‘public debate’ as being particular cause for concern. Corruption scandal aside, FIFA just can’t seem to stop treading in negative publicity and trailing it all over the carpet. With Sepp Blatter’s, err, interesting views on women’s football attire to the grave reports of slave labour and abuse of workers building stadia in Qatar (apparently ‘not FIFA’s responsibility’ - seriously, stop digging), it’s no surprise that the ‘public debate’ isn’t quite so chipper and positive as they might wish. In fact a YouGov poll carried out this summer shows that the people’s impressions of the organisation have indeed taken a nose-dive.
So far scandalous headlines or threats of legal action don’t appear to have been enough to make FIFA change its obvious structural problems and destructive habits – so football fans will be wishin’ and hopin’ that this onslaught from sponsors might be the thing to force change. If greed has been a driver for corruption, it should also be the solution. There are squillions at stake after all. Even if no other brands follow Sony and Emirates and pull out of FIFA completely, you can bet they’ll be using the controversy and seemingly united front to leverage some better value sponsorship deals.
The increasingly strained relationship between brands and major sporting events is something I’ve been following with interest all year. (The Sochi Winter Olympics started 2014 with a slightly different flavour of controversy, though it was equally potent. Anti-gay laws and homophobic attacks in Russia resulted in thousands spamming key sponsors’ social media channels and digital platforms, forcing Coca-Cola and McDonald’s to do some serious backtracking.) It feels that now potential sponsors really are trying to change their approach. It will be interesting to see how that filters down into the advertising for future tournaments. How can sponsors endorse an event while distancing themselves from unsavoury practices? How will agencies navigate the field for new brands that come in to fill the sponsorship vacuum (rumour has it that Samsung is hovering over Sony’s recently vacated spot)? And how will that affect the line up of ad agencies and production companies that will be able to capitalise on upcoming events.
I’ve no doubt that there’s a fair bit of arse-covering going on among the brands who have openly criticised FIFA – why spend all that money on sponsorship if you’re going to risk losing the custom of disappointed football fans? And Sony’s recent announcement that they’re to restructure means that, yes, they really did want to save a bit of cash. But really, who cares what the motivation is if it results in positive change? It’s easy to be cynical about brands and agencies that waffle on about ‘movements’ and ‘engagement’ and ‘joining the conversation’ but brand’s responses to clamouring consumer criticism shows that they are listening, even if Neolithic sporting organisations are not.