Spon­sors aren’t lin­ing up for Rus­sia’s 2018 World Cup

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - TARIQ PANJA

With 16 months to go be­fore the next stag­ing of soc­cer’s flag­ship event, cor­po­rate spon­sors aren’t in a rush to have their names at­tached to the 2018 soc­cer World Cup in Rus­sia.

Tour­na­ment or­ga­nizer FIFA has signed just one new top-tier level part­ner, China’s Wanda Group, since the last tour­na­ment in Brazil. Only Moscow-head­quar­tered Alfa Bank has agreed to be a re­gional World Cup sup­porter, which has re­placed na­tional sup­porter as the cheap­est level of spon­sor­ship.

By the same stage in the tour­na­ment cy­cle for Brazil, al­most all the agree­ments were con­cluded, with the ma­jor­ity con­firmed more than three years be­fore the event kicked off. Rea­sons be­hind com­pa­nies’ re­luc­tance to sign may in­clude the $150 mil­lion cost of the most ex­pen­sive deal and the fall­out from FIFA’s 2015 cor­rup­tion scan­dal, ac­cord­ing to An­drew Ge­or­giou, chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of La­gardere Sports and En­ter­tain­ment, one of the world’s largest sports agen­cies.

“I think com­pli­ance is­sues are af­fect­ing brands and I think the price points are af­fect­ing brands,” Ge­or­giou said in an in­ter­view at his com­pany’s head­quar­ters in Lon­don. “Has FIFA got it­self back to a place where cor­po­rate western brands are com­fort­able do­ing busi­ness?”

An in­ter­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion into wrong­do­ing at the 112-year-old body has been com­pleted by Wash­ing­ton law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sul­li­van, which will pro­vide its re­port to FIFA next month. That will be three months be­fore Rus­sia hosts the Con­fed­er­a­tions Cup, an eight-na­tion tune-up that takes place a year be­fore the main event. As of now FIFA, which sells three cat­e­gories of spon­sor­ship, has just nine com­pa­nies on its ros­ter for the tour­na­ment. That com­pares with 20 by the time the Brazil World Cup kicked off, in­clud­ing two lo­cal com­pa­nies in the global World Cup spon­sor­ship cat­e­gory, the sec­ond most-valu­able seg­ment. Rus­sian state-owned gas gi­ant Gazprom PJSC joined FIFA as a part­ner in 2013 and it wasn’t un­til July 2016 that Alfa Bank joined as FIFA’s first ever and so far only re­gional spon­sor. The num­bers make FIFA’s tar­get of 14 tier-one and tiertwo back­ers, joined by a fur­ther 20 re­gional spon­sors drawn from five global ter­ri­to­ries, seem in­creas­ingly am­bi­tious. World Cup-re­lated spon­sor­ship brought in $404 mil­lion in 2013, ac­cord­ing to FIFA data. That fig­ure was down to $246 mil­lion in 2015.

“The sales process is on­go­ing and new com­mer­cial af­fil­i­ates will join the mar­ket­ing pro­gram be­fore the FIFA World Cup,” FIFA said in an emailed state­ment, with­out pro­vid­ing fur­ther de­tails. FIFA’s long­time mar­ket­ing head Thierry Weil left in Oc­to­ber as part of a clear-out of se­nior man­age­ment. Fur­ther trou­ble is around the cor­ner, Ge­or­giou said. FIFA Pres­i­dent Gianni In­fantino con­vinced mem­bers to ex­pand the World Cup from to 48 teams from 32 for the 2026 tour­na­ment and be­yond. The ex­pan­sion risks di­lut­ing the qual­ity of the com­pe­ti­tion, and makes the usu­ally two-year long re­gional qual­i­fi­ca­tion pro­grams de­val­ued for tele­vi­sion com­pa­nies, said Ge­or­giou, whose com­pany buys and man­ages rights.

“The value’s gone down,” he said. “I have had the same con­ver­sa­tion about the value go­ing down in Asia, same in Africa. The value will go down across the board.”

FIFA de­clined to re­spond to the com­ments, re­fer­ring to a press con­fer­ence given by In­fantino in Jan­uary.

“The foot­ball fever that you have in a coun­try that qual­i­fies for the World Cup is the big­gest and most pow­er­ful pro­mo­tional tool for foot­ball that you can have,” he said at the time.

In­fantino’s World Cup ex­pan­sion is part of string of cam­paign prom­ises he made on an ul­ti­mately suc­cess­ful run to the FIFA pres­i­dency in Fe­bru­ary 2016. He also promised the group’s 211 mem­ber na­tions an in­crease in fi­nan­cial sup­port.

“We’ve changed the sport as a re­sult of pol­i­tics, not be­cause it’s right for sport,” said Ge­or­giou, whose com­pany has con­tracts with the re­gional soc­cer bod­ies for Asia, North Amer­ica and Africa. “I’m not sure that’s right.”

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