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How sponsors are tiptoeing around the controversial Qatar World Cup
Major brands, including FIFA’s official partners, have been rather cautious with their marketing campaigns around the showpiece event
Cristiano Ronaldo has really done the impossible. He’s managed to get Manchester United fans to turn on him. They had stuck by him all these years despite numerous controversies, including allegations of sexual assault. But an interview with Piers Morgan was seemingly the last straw.
And so, rather unsurprisingly, world football’s narcissist-in-chief has made it all about himself ahead of the FIFA World Cup, which begins on Sunday. The organisers of Qatar 2022 must actually be thanking Ronaldo for taking some of the spotlight off them. After all, this is turning out to be one of the most controversial sporting events of all time. And that’s before even a single ball has been kicked.
In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’d recommend watching Tifo Football’s new five-part series on YouTube called The Qatar World Cup Explained. Or Netflix’s FIFA Uncovered, which I recommended last week.
Tl;dw: there are three main controversies around Qatar 2022—allegations of corruption and bribery around Qatar winning the bid to host the World Cup, the reported deaths of hundreds of migrant workers who built the stadiums that will host the World Cup matches, and the nation’s abysmal human rights record overall, including discrimination against the LGBT+ community.
And because of these controversies, brands that are sponsoring football’s showpiece event found themselves in a bit of a pickle.
How sponsors are tiptoeing around Qatar 2022
On Wednesday, Nike dropped its commercial for the FIFA World Cup. Nearly four-and-a-half-minutes long, it’s a really fun video about a team of scientists who get the best footballers from across generations to time-travel and play against each other. Nike calls it the Footballverse.
Now, Nike is not an official sponsor of FIFA, so there was no mention of the Qatar World Cup in the video. But given the timing and the subject of the commercial, it’s clear what the company is targeting. And it’s not the first time Nike has released a commercial featuring a laundry list of some of the world’s best footballers ahead of a FIFA World Cup. My personal favourite is the one from 2010.
But what stuck out to me was the timing of the release—just four days before the World Cup begins. Usually, brands try to milk such campaigns by launching them weeks—sometimes months—in advance. I remember the 2010 Nike commercial was all over television back then. The same can hardly be said for the 2022 version so far.
And Nike isn’t alone. Even rival Adidas, which has been an official FIFA partner since 1970, is being rather shy. The German sportswear major launched its World Cup campaign on November 14, six days before the tournament begins.
And despite being an official partner, Adidas’ minute-long commercial has no mentions of either “FIFA” or “Qatar”. However, the company is organising on-ground fan zones in Qatar, along with global social media activations around the tournament.
But the absence of any reference to Qatar is a common theme in the campaigns of most World Cup sponsors, including Coca-Cola, Hyundai, Visa, Budweiser, and McDonald’s. The only sponsors whose ads have a Qatar reference are Qatar Airways and Qatar Energy, for obvious reasons, and Chinese brands Vivo and Hisense.
As it turns out, brands are “concerned about the association with the host country because of all the controversies related to human rights,” said Ricardo Fort, founder of consultancy firm Sport By Fort Consulting, in an interview with the BBC radio show Today.
“Many of them have delayed the start of their promotions and advertising. They have also avoided explicitly talking about the FIFA World Cup in Qatar. They are referring to it as just the FIFA World Cup, and they are spending less,” added Fort, who was previously the head of global sponsorships at Visa and Coca-Cola.
This World Cup has been in the eye of the storm ever since Qatar controversially won the bid to host it back in 2010. Intense media scrutiny and investigations into the corruption and human rights abuses has resulted in brands being wary of how their sponsorship of the tournament will be perceived.
According to a YouGov survey commissioned by Amnesty International, featuring 17,000 people across 15 countries, 72% believe sponsors should call on FIFA to provide compensation for migrant workers. Amnesty noted that only four of FIFA’s 14 corporate partners and World Cup sponsors—AB InBev (Budweiser), Adidas, Coca-Cola, and McDonald’s—indicated their support for such measures.
It helps that many of FIFA’s partners have long-term deals with the governing body. So, even if they don’t get too many returns from Qatar 2022, they can always make up for it with future editions.
A similar thing happened during the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing earlier this year, when China was heavily criticised for its human rights record. A majority of brands chose to remain quiet, especially in Western countries, right up until the opening ceremony, according to an analysis by advertising-focused magazine Campaign. However, Chinese partners and brands were active in their regional markets.
“There’s a lot of conversation around striking the right kind of balance to be part of the festival, but not being perceived to support Qatar and being connected to some of the human rights issues that are likely to be raised during the tournament,” Misha Sher, global head of sports, entertainment and cultural affairs at media agency MediaCom, told Campaign.
Another factor that could be behind the perceived lack of advertising buzz around Qatar 2022 is the timing of the tournament. A winter World Cup has messed up brands’ media planning, especially in the West. Brands are mostly tuned into dealing with sports events taking place in the summer, Neil Hopkins, global head of strategy for the M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment agency, told SportsPro:
“When [the World Cup is] up against Christmas, it means you end up double counting the amount you’ve got to market. So it’s either eating into your Christmas budget, which is still the most important trading event of the year for just about everybody associated with the World Cup, or you activate less against the World Cup.”
So, how will this all affect the revenue FIFA generates from the World Cup? It’s not going to matter much. According to a Bloomberg report, Qatar 2022 is on course to top the ~$5.4 billion that FIFA earned from the Russia 2018. In fact, FIFA is projected to exceed its revenue target of $6.4 billion for its 2019-2022 cycle, most of which comes from the men’s World Cup.
However, this is because FIFA has pre-sold broadcasting rights, about 240,000 hospitality packages, and nearly three million tickets, the report said.
“What needs to be remembered is that so many of these contracts will have been signed years ago, when the scale of the human rights issues may not have been as well documented,” said Minal Modha, consumer research lead at Ampere Analysis. “The real indicator will be the impact this tournament has on revenues going forward.”
Qatar World Cup Set to Defy Controversy and Hit Revenue High | Bloomberg
I’ll be surprised if FIFA’s partners, especially the ones with long-term deals, haven’t expressed their concerns to the governing body. After all, the controversy is impacting them as well. One can only hope that FIFA learns from its mistakes and avoids a repeat in the future. There are already reports that Saudi Arabia, another country with an abysmal human rights record, is leading a joint bid to host the 2030 World Cup.
Don’t be surprised if you see an encore.
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🍺🚫🇶🇦 Qatar 2022 organisers are reportedly pressuring FIFA to stop the sale of beer at the eight tournament stadiums. This was after FIFA sponsor Budweiser was forced to relocate its branded beer stations outside the stadiums to less prominent spots. While the sale of alcohol is strictly controlled in Qatar, a conservative Muslim nation, the World Cup organisers had earlier allowed beer to be sold outside stadiums, at designated fan zones, and at hotels. A ban on beer, if it comes through, would complicate FIFA’s $75 million sponsorship deal with Budweiser.
✔️👟 Nike is opening an online store and trading platform for virtual sneakers, called .Swoosh. Some of the products it sells may unlock access to physical items, be available to use in video games or provide entry to real-life events. Nike has reportedly earned nearly $200 million to date from NFT products. Last year, it acquired virtual sneaker maker RTFKT.
🍎⚽️🎧 Apple has launched a new podcast dedicated to the 2022 FIFA World Cup called “After the Whistle”. It’ll be hosted by Brendan Hunt, co-creator and star of hit Apple TV+ series Ted Lasso, and NBC Sports presenter Rebecca Lowe.
📱🏈 Amazon Prime Video has launched a live, daily, 12-hour programming block dedicated to sports talk in the US. “Sports Talk” will stream from Monday to Friday from 8 am - 8 pm ET on Prime Video, and it can be accessed without a Prime subscription. Will we see something similar in India soon?
🏏🇺🇸 The first season of Major League Cricket, the new franchise-based T20 league based in the US, will be held from July 13-30, 2023, organisers announced. The primary venue for the tournament will be the newly renovated Grand Prairie Stadium outside Dallas, Texas.
🇨🇭🎾👟 Swiss shoemaker On Holding plans to capitalise on the retirement of its highest-profile endorser and part-owner, Roger Federer. The Zurich-based brand launched its first tennis shoe in 2020, its first foray outside of running. It now plans to expand into “a more lifestyle area of tennis”.
🇩🇪💰 Activist investor Petrus Advisers is pressuring German tech company TeamViewer to end its sponsorship deals with football club Manchester United and the Mercedes Formula 1 team. Petrus, which has a <3% stake in TeamViewer, believes the deals are too expensive and show “appalling judgment”. TeamViewer is reportedly spending more than €70 million ($73 million)—about 1.4 times its net profit—on the deals.
📖 Weekend Reads
🇳🇵👷 Hundreds of thousands of Nepalis were part of an army of migrant workers who built World Cup stadiums in Qatar. According to data from Nepal’s labour ministry, at least 2,100 of them have died in Qatar since 2010, the year it won the World Cup hosting rights. The New York Times’ Tariq Panja and Bhadra Sharma travelled to rural Nepal to speak to some of the workers and their families.
🇶🇦⚽️ Winning the rights to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup was just one part of Qatar’s ambitious plan. The other was building a competitive team that will represent the country in its first-ever World Cup appearance. In the Wall Street Journal, Joshua Robinson writes about how Qatar built its team over the last 14 years. The Financial Times also has a similar piece.
📺 The Watchlist
⚽️🇶🇦🇪🇨 Hosts Qatar take on Ecuador in the opening match of the FIFA World Cup 2022 on Sunday at 9.30 pm IST. Live on Sports18 and Jio Cinema.
🏏🇮🇳🇳🇿 After an embarrassing defeat to England in the semi-finals of the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup, the Indian cricket team is now in New Zealand for a limited-overs tour. The first of three T20Is was washed out, with the next two scheduled for Sunday and Tuesday, both starting at 12 pm IST. Live on Amazon Prime Video.
Sponsors may not be buzzing about the World Cup, but Indian expats in Qatar can’t wait for the action to begin. Numerous videos have been doing the rounds on social media showing Indian expats, mostly from Kerala, cheering their favourite adopted teams for the World Cup.
Here’s one of the England fans. “It’s coming home”, apparently.
Huge number of Indian ex-pats outside the England hotel, awaiting the team’s arrival in Qatar. Spoke to a few of them, and they insist they are not fake fans. Also have shown us murals of England players they have drawn back in Kerala
Nov 15, 2022
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Meanwhile, the Qatar 2022 organisers have rejected claims that these are fake paid fans.
That’s all from The Playbook this week. See you again next Friday!