Fifa struggling to attract sponsors

Staff await arrivals at the Sheremetyevo International Airport just outside Moscow for the World Cup Finals draw. Next to them is an ad board of Zabivaka, the competition's wolf mascot.
Staff await arrivals at the Sheremetyevo International Airport just outside Moscow for the World Cup Finals draw. Next to them is an ad board of Zabivaka, the competition's wolf mascot.PHOTO: REUTERS

Companies shun Russia World Cup for fear of getting linked with corruption-tainted body

NEW YORK • Fifa, football's world governing body, ordinarily enjoys huge revenue streams - in the hundreds of millions of dollars - from sponsorship deals attached to the world's most-watched sporting event, the World Cup.

But less than a year before the next edition of the tournament, the organisation is having trouble finding companies willing to be a partner. Football is more popular than ever. What is different this time is Fifa's reputation.

While the field of 32 nations is set for next year's showpiece in Russia, the tournament's roster of sponsors remains noticeably undersubscribed - a reflection of how much the reputational damage from a much-publicised 2015 corruption crisis continues to hurt Fifa.

Just on Monday, the former president of Colombia's football federation told a New York courtroom that he was approached over potential bribe payments to back Qatar's bid to host the 2022 World Cup.

Luis Bedoya, who has pleaded guilty to corruption charges, said he and two other senior South American football officials discussed potential bribes during a conversation with an intermediary in Madrid in 2010.

The New York trial is further battering Fifa's reputation, and days before Friday's World Cup draw at the Kremlin, Fifa could be facing a significant financial shortfall.

Six months before the Finals draw for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Fifa declared its sponsorship programme "sold out". This year, while Fifa has refilled its ranks of top-tier partners with firms in Russia, Qatar and China, only one of the 20 slots available to regional tournament sponsors has been claimed.

WHY NAME CHANGE MAY BE NEEDED

The word Fifa globally has got just the worst image in the world. If anything, those four letters stand for absolute total corruption and it's so unattractive.

PATRICK NALLY, sports sponsorship executive, on the world football governing body's sullied name.

  • FIFA SPONSORS

  • 1ST TIER - FIFA PARTNERS (6-8)

    • Adidas (Germany, sportswear)

    • Coca Cola (USA, beverage)

    • Wanda (China, multi-industry including property)

    • Gazprom (Russia, energy)

    • Hyundai-Kia (South Korea, vehicles)

    • Qatar Airways

    • Visa (USA, financials)


    2ND TIER - WORLD CUP SPONSORS (6-8)

    • Budweiser (USA, beer)

    • McDonalds (USA, fast food)

    • Hisense (China, electronics)

    • Vivo (China, technology)

    • Fifa entitities: Handshake for Peace, Football For Hope and Fifa.com


    3RD TIER - REGIONAL SUPPORTERS (UP TO 20)

    • Alfa Bank (Russia) Maximum four per region (Europe, North-Central America, South America, Africa-Middle East, Asia)

    SOURCES: FIFA.COM, NEW YORK TIMES

Since Fifa president Gianni Infantino swept to power last year in the wake of the corruption crisis, Fifa has managed to secure marquee deals only with companies in countries (Russia and Qatar) set to host the World Cup and another (China) that hopes to do so.

That geographic spread tells its own story, according to Patrick Nally, a sports sponsorship executive who helped set up Fifa's first international marketing programme four decades ago.

"It's not surprising it's been and still is a toxic brand," he said.

"Unless you are from China or somewhere like that, where the fact Fifa is in court in New York and associated with corruption doesn't matter, no corporation is going to consider it safe to get involved with Fifa."

In fact, Nally added, Fifa's association with corrupt behaviour now runs so deep that he suggested the 113-year-old organisation should consider a name change.

"The word Fifa globally has got just the worst image in the world. If anything, those four letters stand for absolute total corruption and it's so unattractive," Nally said.

In the aftermath of the arrests of key Fifa officials in May 2015, a handful of companies allowed their partnership agreements to end.

In the meantime, deals with Chinese companies like the Wanda Group, Hisense and Vivo, as well as an agreement with Qatar Airways announced earlier this year, have helped cover up the loss of partners like Sony and the Emirates airline.

But an apparent lack of interest among Russian businesses is hurting Fifa. Currently there are only two sponsors from the 2018 host country: the energy giant Gazprom is a top-tier partner, and Alfa Bank is Fifa's only regional partner, the lowest designation of three categories of sponsorship.

Local partners are crucial not just in financing the event but also in building excitement among fans in the host country, something that has been distinctly absent in Russia so far.

By the time the 2014 tournament in Brazil kicked off, no fewer than eight local companies had signed on. Global sponsorship income from 2014 was US$650 million (S$874 million) higher than the US$1 billion generated at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Next year, the result for Russia will be flat at best, according to Fifa's own estimates.

And with just over six months until the World Cup's opening game, time is also against Fifa.

"If you are going to do a big deal and want to activate, it's really late," said Tim Crow, who recently stepped down as the chief executive of Synergy, a firm that has advised Olympic and World Cup sponsors.

"You normally want your campaign in the market now, or by January and February; what's more, it can take anywhere from six months to a year to plan it all."

NYTIMES, THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on , with the headline ''. Print Edition | Subscribe