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Sponsors Follow The Fans In Wake Of FIFA Corruption Scandal

The Globe and Mail, June 14, 2015

By Grant Robertson

The deepening corruption scandal at FIFA has led to calls for sponsors to drop their support of soccer to send a message about ethics. But unless fans are willing to walk away, it’s unlikely the sport’s governing body will feel much pain.

Brand experts say no matter how many allegations of bribery and fraud have stacked up against the organization in recent years, the fans keep coming.

And as long as the crowds come out, the sponsors will too.

That lesson is on display at the Women’s World Cup this month in Canada, where attendance is strong and the FIFA scandal has been relegated – for now – to the sidelines after the organization’s president Sepp Blatter said he will step down once a successor is chosen in the coming months.

“People are not turning in their tickets to the Women’s World Cup, or saying they’re not going to watch the matches on TV. At the end of the day, the sponsors will follow the fans,” said Jim Andrews, senior vice-president at Chicago-based sports marketing firm IEG. “Until the consumers say we’re not going to support the sport because of what’s going on, the sponsors will follow the fans.”

The soccer world was rocked two weeks ago by the indictment of 14 people in connection to bribery and kickback charges against the International Association Football Federation, which is known by its French initials, FIFA. Among the charges are allegations that millions of dollars were paid to FIFA officials for the right to host and broadcast key matches, such as the World Cup.

Such revelations come at a time when the granting of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar was already being criticized, given the country’s troublesome record on human rights, its intense summer heat, and mounting concerns over high numbers of worker deaths during the construction of its soccer venues.

But if the 2022 World Cup does go ahead in Qatar, it’s unlikely that TV ratings will take a hit, given global support for soccer. And therefore sponsors won’t be inclined to stay away either, taking their cues directly from fan support, Mr. Andrews said.

At the heart of the matter for sponsors is a delicate calculation: Does the upside of sponsoring soccer events that put a company’s brand in front of millions of fans outweigh the downside of the controversies that seem to endlessly surround FIFA. The uncomfortable answer to that question for sponsors is, so far, a definite yes.

“FIFA has become a byword for shady dealings,” said Chris Renner, chief executive officer of Helios Partners, which markets sporting events around the world. “But the World Cup will always be bulletproof, there’s no question about it. It’s just too great a competition to even have the guys that run it screw it up. All you’ve got to basically do is get 11 players on each side and roll a ball out and the thing’s going to happen – and 60,000 people will show up.”

The latest FIFA scandal emerged just one week before the Women’s World Cup opened in Edmonton, so it’s difficult to gauge a reaction by fans, since many tickets were already sold. Attendance figures for the event being held in cities across the country appear headed for a record. Canada’s opening match drew more than 53,000 fans, the largest audience for a Canadian national team on home soil in any sport.

As a whole, the 52-match tournament had sold 1.1 million tickets as of Friday, outpacing the 846,000 tickets sold for the 2011 Women’s World Cup in Germany, which had just 32 matches. A better comparison for ticket sales, though, is the FIFA Under-20 World Cup that Canada hosted in 2007. That men’s event sold 1.2 million tickets over 52 matches. Soccer Canada expects the Women’s World Cup to exceed that number, and possibly reach 1.5 million if Canada and the United States play into the later rounds.

Mr. Renner hopes the indictments of FIFA officials this month are a turning point for the sport, and has likened those charges to a possible “Ben Johnson moment” – referring to the 1988 doping scandal in Seoul where track and field could no longer deny the extent of the problems many had suspected for years prior to the Canadian sprinter testing positive for steroids.

“I think it’s now or never,” he said. “We all knew [in 1988] that doping was going on seriously in a lot of sports, not just athletics … but it took one of those moments that you can’t even turn your eyes away from, kicking you in the shins, saying we’ve got a serious problem here.”

However, Mr. Anderson is unsure whether these latest scandals will have a long-term impact. Protests on social media and a reaction by soccer fans are often two separate things, he said.

“In today’s world, with social media, you hear a lot more of the backlash, you see the social media campaigns … and that does capture some attention for sure. But it has not reached a point where it is leading a significant number – let alone a majority – of fans, to say, ‘We’re not going to be interested,’” Mr. Andrews said.