The world’s biggest televised sporting event is underway in Qatar, with 32 nations descending for soccer’s World Cup.
Unusually, and for the first time ever, the event is being held in the winter months of November and December, a decision made some years ago to counteract the effects of the summer heat, when it isn't unusual for the mercury to creep above 122 degrees.
Herein lies part of the issue, where heat fatigue and exhaustion are said to have claimed the lives of, human rights organizations claim, thousands of foreign workers shipped in, mostly from the Asian subcontinent to build the mega-stadiums that pepper the desert state.
But, it isn't just the working and living conditions of foreign laborers that have sparked controversy, so to the conservative religious laws that make homosexuality, the consumption of alcohol outside of specific hotels or, indeed, public displays of affection, all illegal.
The moral dilemma for participating nations is real. A few weeks ago, Denmark unveiled its “protest” kit, an all-black shirt, shorts, socks combo, designed by sporting mega-brand Hummel. In an Instagram post released on the same day that the Danish Football Federation unveiled their three world cup strips, Hummel posted “The colour of mourning...While we support the Danish national team all the way, this shouldn’t be confused with support for a tournament that has cost thousands of people their lives.”
Take note CMOs, for where governments and politicians have to answer to their constituents, so too brands need to answer to their consumers.
Hummel’s approach was a master-stroke for any marketer backed into a corner. It was never going to give up the lucrative deal with the DFF and so leant into the issue in a way that gives them the moral high ground, without losing out financially. Well played.
Four years ago, the World Cup final attracted an estimated TV audience of more than 1 billion people or 13% of the earth's population. It is worth noting that sponsors and partners are not crucial to FIFA’s revenue, with TV broadcasting rights providing more income than any other stream. In 2018, TV accounted for over $3.1 billion, about half its overall earnings. So, while sponsorship is no doubt important, it is by no means critical to the tournament going ahead; with a number of big brands pulling out, there may even be an opportunity to score some bargains in the sponsorship space.
A recent Nielsen report found that 67% of soccer fans think brands are more appealing when participating in sports partnerships, compared to 52% of the general population. This, the potential for a bargain 1 billion eyeballs on your product, is the marketer’s equivalent of Russian Roulette. Sure, you might win big, but you could also blow your brains out.
Liam Maguire is EVP of Good Relations New York.