Spon­sors’ grow­ing grip on soc­cer

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - MEDIA& MARKETING -

LON­DON: At the World Cup fi­nals in South Africa last year you could hardly move for the cor­po­rate mes­sages that bom­barded ev­ery level of your con­scious­ness un­til you were wak­ing in the mid­dle of the night with the Coca-cola tele­vi­sion com­mer­cial tune play­ing in your head.

By the end of six weeks in South Africa, “Wavin’ Flag” by K’naan – the sound­track to the ubiq­ui­tous Coke ad­vert – was so en­grained in my psy­che I thought I might need ther­apy to shift it. Oliver Tambo Air­port in Jo­han­nes­burg was fes­tooned with Co­caCola- mar­ket­ing liv­ery and had at­ten­dants in the ar­rivals lobby to serve com­pli­men­tary drinks.

Even in Africa, where there is a glo­ri­ously home-made feel to a lot of the Premier League soc­cer shirts you see, the Fifa cor­po­rate part­ners’ foot­print was ev­ery­where. These huge global en­ti­ties – Adi­das, Coca- Cola, Emi­rates, Hyundai, Sony, Visa – had their com­mer­cials played on sta­dium screens, on tele­vi­sion, in air­ports.

The spon­sors pay Fifa £15 mil­lion (about R190 mil­lion) a year to own the show. But the way they project them­selves has shifted too. Ad­ver­tis­ing in soc­cer is no longer based exclusively on the fa­mous play­ers on the pitch, it tar­gets the fan and his iden­tity – his hopes, fears, the car he drives and beer he drinks. Not to men­tion the face paint and colour­ful wig with­out which no ad­ver­tiser feels any rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a sup­porter is com­plete.

What is it that ab­sorbs most fans? It varies, but last week you did not have to be Don Draper to iden­tify the sub­ject on ev­ery­one’s mind. Sepp Blat­ter’s com­ments on racism in gen­eral – specif­i­cally that racist abuse should be re­solved with a hand­shake – were not just head­lines. The story led the ra­dio bul­letins, web­sites and ra­dio phone-ins. It trended for days on end. It pretty much pushed ev­ery but­ton for a modern me­dia news sen­sa­tion.

A hur­ri­cane of pure out­rage and dis­be­lief, it drew other sto­ries to­wards it, in­clud­ing the Terry-fer­di­nand and Suarez-evra cases. In its wake came John Barnes, who of­fered up the most pre­scient anal­y­sis of modern at­ti­tudes to race. Gus Poyet was drawn in too.

For a cou­ple of days Blat­ter wiped every­thing off the soc­cer agenda and ev­ery­one had a view.

Ev­ery­one, that is, apart from those Fifa part­ners. While the rest of the coun­try knew ex­actly what they thought about Blat­ter, these be­he­moths of modern con­sumerism said noth­ing.

Not quite noth­ing, but the re­sponses, and non- re­sponses, printed on this page that I gar­nered from the six Fifa part­ners last week add up to very lit­tle. They are writ­ten in the con­sti­pated dou­ble-speak of PR peo­ple, ter­ri­fied a word out of place will spark a me­dia firestorm.

These six com­pa­nies are the forces that could ef­fect change at Fifa. It was the case at the News of the World when ad­ver­tis­ers started to pull out. If the spon­sors were to add their voices to the calls for Blat­ter to go, they could ap­ply in­fin­itely more pres­sure than that ex­er­cised in­di­vid­u­ally by the sup- porters to whom they sell cars, Playsta­tions and fizzy drinks.

The com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion of soc­cer is here to stay. It is how Wem­b­ley got built. It is how the Glaz­ers pay their debts. It is as fun­da­men­tal to the game as the tick­et­ing and the broad­cast rev­enue.

It is easy to de­spise the cor­po­rate grip on soc­cer, but one has to be re­al­is­tic about what the game has be­come. These multinational com­pa­nies pro­vide em­ploy­ment and pay cor­po­ra­tion taxes. But they were woe­fully out of touch with the mood last week.

Blat­ter­gate and the in­stan­ta­neous re­ac­tion it drew from peo­ple – from or­di­nary sup­port­ers to high­pro­file play­ers – was a prime ex­am­ple of how, in the modern age, these global cor­po­ra­tions that want soc­cer’s re­flected glory can be so off the pace. They are so timid to say what they ac­tu­ally think they say noth­ing at all.

The cred­i­bil­ity of Blat­ter’s regime is shot to bits. From the fall­out from the ISL col­lapse to the vote for Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup and on to his un­con­tested Fifa pres­i­dency elec­tion, the or­gan­i­sa­tion has gone be­yond par­ody. Or, as Rio Fer­di­nand put it, Fifa has be­come “sit­com ma­te­rial”.

In Brazil in 2014, will Fifa’s part­ners ig­nore all this as they project more im­ages of joy­ous sup­port­ers and 3D tel­lies? Or is some­one go­ing to tell them, in the cur­rent cli­mate, they stand out like a mid­dle-aged di­vorcee at a Katy Perry gig? That if they want to re­flect the fan ex­pe­ri­ence then they need to get with the pro­gramme and ef­fect change.

When I rang Adi­das, the wo­man in the press of­fice thanked me for “reach­ing out”. Then, when I sug­gested we had a chat about Blat­ter, she kept re­peat­ing if I pro­vided my e-mail ad­dress she would send a state­ment. Af­ter two failed at­tempts to strike up con­ver­sa­tion, I re­marked she was be­hav­ing like a ro­bot. With­out a hint of irony she just said the same thing again.

With their Lionel Messi/der­rick Rose ads, Adi­das por­trays it­self as the pre­ferred choice of the cool kids in the school­yard.

They should never be as­so­ci­ated with any­thing as lame as duck­ing a straight ques­tion. One can only imag­ine that, in pri­vate, Fifa’s global part­ners are say­ing ex­actly the same about Blat­ter as the rest of us. They should say the same in pub­lic and see what hap­pens. I can guar­an­tee they would like the re­ac­tion. – The Independent

COR­PO­RATE GRIP: Ad­ver­tis­ing is no longer based exclusively on the the fa­mous play­ers, it tar­gets the fans.

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