FIFA sponsors talk tough, action another thing

Tue May 31, 2011 6:47pm EDT

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By Lisa Baertlein

LOS ANGELES, May 31 (Reuters) - FIFA's major sponsors are talking tough over corruption allegations that are rocking soccer's governing body, but marketing experts doubt their words will translate into actions that could cost the organization lucrative deals.

"Based on history, one would not expect the sponsors to do much more than issue statements in favor of ethical behavior and opposed to unethical behavior," said Marc Ganis, president of consulting firm Sportscorp Ltd.

Charges that Qatar purchased the right to host the 2022 World Cup and the suspension of two senior officials over cash for votes allegations have the scandal-plagued organization grappling with its worst crisis to date. [ID:nL3E7GV0LN]

"We have shared our concerns with FIFA, and it is our expectation that FIFA will address and resolve this situation in an expedient manner, and work towards restoring the trust of fans around the world who share great passion for the sport and this tournament," an Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI.BR) spokesperson told Reuters via email.

Important sponsors, including Coca Cola (KO.N), Visa Inc (V.N) and Adidas AG (ADSGn.DE), voiced dismay over the latest headlines, while others like McDonald's Corp (MCD.N) and Sony Corp (6758.T) were silent. [ID:nN3186256]

"Until these allegations are substantiated and they haven't been yet, and more details come out, I suspect the brands are going to play wait-and-see. That's the most prudent approach," said Jeremy Walker, head of sports marketing and branded entertainment with GolinHarris.

Soccer fans around the world are a rabidly loyal and resilient lot, and sports marketing gurus said it would take a scandal on the level of game fixing to turn them off.

"Corruption is an old story with international sports," said Robert Boland, associate professor of sports management at New York University.

FIFA sponsors for months have been balancing the growing popularity of soccer with a string of corruption allegations at the governing organization. [ID:nLDE74S0IH]

"Let's not forget the value of a relationship with FIFA, the value of a relationship with the World Cup and the Womens' World Cup and everything that FIFA does around the world -- from grass-roots football right up to international events," Walker said.

The question is whether, over the coming days, the scandal goes away or becomes more like an onion that reveals layer upon layer of misdeeds.

"They will be monitoring the situation very closely and should the situation escalate, then they will be ready to make a statement and make a decision," said Walker, who added that corporate sponsors stuck by superstar golfer Tiger Woods until the media substantiated multiple sexual liaisons that destroyed his squeaky clean image.

Allegations like those haunting FIFA are more harmful to "values-driven" organizations like the International Olympic Committee, said Chris Welton, a sports marketing consultant whose former company was the marketing agency for the IOC when it was rocked by scandal.

Corporations and other entities get more worked up about sports scandals than the common man, he said.

"I don't think the man on the street cares about how Qatar got the games, they're just going to enjoy them ... They don't want (FIFA) brought to its knees." (Additional reporting by Martinne Geller in New York, Melanie Lee in Shanghai and Brad Dorfman in Chicago; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

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