Sponsors’ growing grip on soccer
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.