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Slavery, Sponsorships, And Taking The Blame

Vice Sports, December 08, 2014

By Aaron Gordon

After yet another ghastly reveal about the conditions under which Qatar's foreign laborers are building the 2022 World Cup's infrastructure, Deadspin ran an article titled "Coca-Cola Supports Slavery." Tim Marchman stated the idea quite simply: "Coca-Cola supports FIFA, and FIFA supports slavery, which means that by the transitive property, Coca-Cola supports slavery."

This bit of logic is hardly unique in its application to FIFA. When the outrage over the NFL's domestic violence problem was at its height, fans and media outlets alike watched the NFL's sponsors closely, waiting to see if any of them sent the ultimate message by cancelling deals. This, of course, didn't happen. Sponsors criticized the NFL, shifted blame away from the NFL, ignored the issue entirely, or some combination therein, but none canceled their deals. The money kept flowing.

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This was an entirely predictable outcome. Businesses rarely retract sponsorships due to high-profile controversies or public pressure for a very simple reason: we don't stop watching.

Companies pay for sponsorships so they have exposure to fans, either to sell products or court potential business partners with access to high profile events. Either way, the more popular the sport or event, the more coveted the sponsorship. Jim Andrews, senior vice president of the sports sponsorship consulting firm IEG, elaborated on this process over the phone: "[The companies] look at it literally from a risk-reward standpoint that says, we know there is potential for controversy or a potential for backlash whenever we get involved in anything like this, but you look at how large is that potential and balance that with how many people don't really care about these kinds of issues."

In a subtle but important distinction, companies rarely pay for the association with the sports league itself, but rather the exposure that comes with that partnership. Coca-Cola doesn't necessarily want to be thought of as the soft drink Sepp Blatter drinks, but rather to have its logo blanketed across the screen during the most viewed sporting event in the world. Sponsors aren't going to abandon their deals because of controversies as long as the fans don't leave, either. Stephen McKelvey, associate professor in sport management at the University of Massachusetts, summed it up by saying, "Ultimately, they're buying the fans."

Although fans generally care about these issues—few people are in favor of domestic violence or corruption, or at least willing to say so—this hasn't led to many people turning off the games, which is all the sponsors care about. Although the NFL saw a sharp decline in approval ratings after the domestic violence scandal, these ratings didn't hurt television ratings, which remained as high as ever. Meanwhile, every time the World Cup is held, it breaks previous ratings records.

Further, people's attention spans for these issues seem to not last very long, providing more evidence that companies need not be too concerned with public outcry. "I think the one thing we've found in all of these sports scandals is that they come and go," McKelvey observed. "It's domestic violence today, but it'll be something else in six months." If fans forgive—or forget, at any rate—within months or even weeks, why should companies cancel multi-year partnerships?

It's hard to say exactly why fans look to sponsors to exercise a level of corporate responsibility before they look to themselves. Perhaps it's a practical consideration: a mass exodus amongst sponsors seems more plausible, since there are fewer of them and their individual actions make a greater impact than those of each individual fan. Or maybe it's simply to alleviate fans of any responsibility so they can keep watching guilt-free while passing the blame to multinational corporations.

Or perhaps it's something more intrinsic to the average fan. Loyalty is a part of of fandom. You're supposed to love your team through thick and thin, supporting them even when they're at their lowest. It is against most fans' DNA to consider not watching them, especially during the limited, 16-game NFL season or the World Cup. Regardless of the reason, this unwillingness yields a depressing, yet quite obvious truth: when forced to choose between sports and an issue of objectively greater importance, most fans choose sports.

Some might argue sponsors can make a difference, pointing to Sony and Emirates Airlines recently ending their partnerships with FIFA. But, it's unlikely their decisions had much, if anything, to do with FIFA's recent controversies. Rather, Sony and Emirates likely backed out of sponsorship deals that were not getting them enough bang for their buck, using existing controversies as a publicity excuse.

"I think, in Sony's case, it's difficult to stand out," Andrews said. Competing with companies like Coca-Cola and Visa that pump over half a billion dollars combined into a three week tournament can be a fool's errand. Relatively smaller corporations like Sony, which certainly have resources but a more limited agreement with FIFA, will find even $100 million doesn't get them the audience and attention they expect for that kind of commitment. For Emirates, based in Dubai, it's unlikely they saw much growth potential in Russia and Qatar, the hosts of the next two World Cups.

"It's tough for me to say that if this was moving the needle and blowing TVs and all these other products out the door, that they couldn't find a way to keep this sponsorship," McKelvey said. "Because FIFA has been having scandals for the last 40 years, this is not new either. So they also signed onto FIFA when it was nothing but scandal, right?"

Even if Sony and Emirates left FIFA to send a message, FIFA wouldn't hear it. The two companies are hardly the last ones on the planet willing to sponsor the global soccer behemoth. Some other major company will fill those slots in short order. The same goes for the NFL, which McKelvey called one of the most valuable sponsorships in America. "I don't think any sponsor would drop [the NFL] because the second they drop it, a competitor is going to come in and take it," he said. "If Pepsi drops the NFL today, Coke will be sitting outside Goodell's door tomorrow morning,"

Ultimately, these appeals for sponsors to lead the way on social or moral issues gets the entire process backwards. For the sponsors, the name of the game is damage control until fans start leaving in droves and devalue the sponsorship itself. According to McKelvey, sponsors have two approaches to damage control: silence or help fix it. In the NFL's case, Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam called for more attention to domestic violence issues across the country, essentially leveraging its partnership with a controversial property in a positive way. At least on the surface, this seems like a far more effective approach than abandoning its partnership with the NFL altogether, in which case, AT&T or Sprint might swoop in and simply replace them, leaving the NFL no worse for the wear. Perhaps instead of calling on sponsors to abandon the leagues in the face of controversy, we should be asking them to dedicate resources to help address it.

Regardless of what fans demand, in the relationship between sponsors and sports leagues, we are the product. It's easy to see where Marchman and those who echo his sentiments are coming from, but they ultimately reverse the arrows on the flow chart. I watch FIFA events, FIFA supports slavery, so I support slavery. There's simply no way around the fact that if you watch the World Cup, then you support slavery, too.