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June 9, 2014 6:08 pm
The decision by a number of leading World Cup sponsors – Sony, Adidas, Visa, Coca-Cola and Hyundai-Kia – to express concern publicly about allegations surrounding the election of Qatar as host of the event in 2022 has added a new dimension to the developing crisis facing Fifa, world football’s governing body.
In the final days leading up to a World Cup in Brazil, sponsors would expect to be maximising the return on their investment by fine-tuning promotional and hospitality programmes, not moving into crisis communications mode and being forced to defend their partnerships. Companies have invested hundreds of millions of dollars; for many it is the largest single global marketing initiative they undertake. With Fifa’s declared principles of integrity, ethics and fair play being brought into question, sponsors are fearing a backlash against their own brands.
Neither Fifa nor its corporate partners can afford a continued slow release of revelations. The doomsday scenario for the companies is that the situation is allowed to drag on, turning one of the most powerful sports partnerships toxic. Fifa already has its hands full dealing with the constant threat of match fixing, and is now being accused of turning a blind eye to the biggest fix of all: the choice of who gets to host its main event.
Fifteen years ago, as marketing and broadcast director of the International Olympic Committee, I experienced a very similar crisis when allegations of inappropriate payments over the selection of Salt Lake City as host of the 2002 Winter Games began to emerge. Sponsors were challenged from all quarters to step forward and demand reform, with the media and politicians wading into the dispute.
Faced with potential extinction, the IOC set up a reform committee made up of a range of voices including chief executives from some of the Olympic sponsors as well as politicians from around the world. This combination gave the body credibility in the eyes of those raising questions. The panel came up with an overall package of 50 radical reforms ranging from changing the structure of membership to creating a more refined bidding process. The changes, which would normally have taken decades to pass, if they passed at all, were rushed through in months, allowing the IOC to become far stronger and more transparent.
At the time, the leadership of the IOC understood the seriousness of the crisis but it was far from clear that all of its members did. Many simply saw the issue as an “Anglo-Saxon media debate” rather than a situation that was threatening the heart of the organisation. However, when the sponsors spoke up and made it clear that future funding of the Olympics was at stake, the problem could not be ignored.
Fifa has commissioned an independent report on the bidding process from Michael Garcia, a US lawyer. The sponsors will be looking to this report to get to the bottom of the matter, and allow Fifa quickly to bring an end to the situation. The world will need confidence that the bidding process was fair, that Qatar won without any hint of impropriety. A whitewash risks being the beginning of the end.
In the Machiavellian world of international sports politics, it is not beyond imagination that Fifa’s leadership even encouraged the sponsors to speak out – knowing that, as with the IOC, their actions could help drive through necessary reforms that would be otherwise impossible. International assemblies made up of more than 200 nations are not structured to take fast, decisive action – and their leaders know this. Though the world may believe presidents of global sports bodies have unfettered powers, this is rarely the case. They often struggle to drive any meaningful reform through bureaucratic bodies made up of multiple and conflicting national interests.
The measure of a true leader is how they turn a crisis to their advantage. It can be a catalyst for making much-needed changes. The fact that World Cup sponsors are speaking out publicly may finally allow Sepp Blatter, Fifa’s longstanding president, to drive through the reforms that have long been sought, in much the same way as the IOC did 15 years ago.
The writer is the former marketing and broadcast rights director of the International Olympic Committee and the author of ‘Olympic Turnaround’
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