FIFA president Sepp Blatter went from warning sponsors not to jump ship to doing exactly that in a matter of days; something big convinced him it was time to go but was it down to pressure from annoyed sponsors or are they just keen to bask in the spotlight in the aftermath.
Blatter made the shock announcement yesterday evening (2 June), ending a 17-year tenure as the boss of world football. His departure is a drastic u-turn on the defiant figure from four days ago when he was re-elected in the wake of arrests of several of his closest aides.
It is unclear what made Blatter jump but it is unlikely that the languid statements from Fifa’s sponsors pushed him. The likeliest reason was a letter addressed to Blatter’s right hand man secretary general Jerome Valcke that surfaced on Monday and alleges he is the high ranking official who made key payments in the bribery scandal rocking world football. Prior to the revelations, Blatter had been determined to serve another term despite calls from all corners of the sport for him to go.
The surprising resignation set the stage for sponsors. The same sponsors that were tepid in their calls for reform at FIFA to date rushed to stick the boot into the outgoing Blatter just hours after his news. Hastily put together statements from Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Adidas, Visa and Budweiser hailed his exit as the “first step to positive reform” and said “fundamental and extensive reform” was now needed to rebuild public trust.
FIFA sponsors getting twitchy
Each sponsor has been in situations like this before, which render their responses disappointing rather than surprising. Whether its carefully distancing themselves just far enough from a controversial human rights issue or continuing to pay athletes with violent tendencies, these companies have been reluctant to take the moral high ground despite talking a good game.
Sponsorship experts observe that Blatter’s resignation was less about pressure from sponsors and more about a smoking gun arising from the FBI’s investigation of FIFA. The value of the organisation’s sponsorship deals is $500m while its TV rights is $1.85bn so why is all the pressure on the sponsors to be the moral compass, they added.
Jaimie Fuller the chairman of sportswear maker Skins, which recently launched a campaign to highlight the perceived hypocrisy of brands backing FIFA, said if sponsors were going to force Blatter out then they would have done it before the presidency election not after. “And even if sponsors had pressured him into going then why wouldn’t they want to own that?” he continued.
“I’d be claiming that and leaking that news to the media. There’s no question that he wouldn’t have seen out another full term given the FBI’s investigation but I’m having difficult reconciling how that development would have come about so quickly so I think Baltter’s resignation is more to do with this letter being revealed.”
Hope for FIFA reform rests with sponsors
The events of the past seven days have heaped pressure on brands to reconsider their links with FIFA. Everyone from the Duke of Cambridge to political satirist John Oliver has urged the likes of Coke and McDonald’s to take the lead since the scandal first came to light though their calls appear to have fallen on deaf ears.
Antony Marcou, managing director of marketing group Sports Revolution, said he was “ashamed” that the pressure from sponsors on Blatter to resign wasn’t bigger.
It is standard practice for brands to put out an initial “holding” statement when any sort of crisis forms involving one of their properties. However, in this case Visa was the only FIFA backer to threaten to pull the plug on its deal if drastic changes weren’t made to how it is run.
“No one actually realised the significance of [the corruption scandal], which is why none of the sponsors came out and threatened to end their deal, said Marcou. “There is no way that Pepsi would go into a sponsorship in their rival’s absence on the back of a scandal like this. It would be disastrous for the brand.”
The busted flush that is FIFA's brand
Ultimately, it points to the busted flush the FIFA brand has come to represent over the past week. Its future rests on Blatter’s successor and their ability to take it from being an inherently inward looking organisation and remould it as a transparent one. Despite the popularity of the World Cup, FIFA’s brand is fractured globally with it nowhere near as celebrated in Europe and the US as it is in Asia and Africa where it is widely lauded for its grassroots efforts.
Nigel Currie, sponsorship consultant, said Blatter’s resignation “won’t save FIFA alone” and a “complete rebrand is needed”.
“They need to dismantle the whole thing and get rid of the baggage because that’s the only way people will believe its new and fit for purpose, “ he said. “That could include changing its name because FIFA is so baldy damaged now that you almost have to call it something else to save it.”
The corruption allegations will take time to resolve for nowhere are there more pressing concerns. The questionable awarding of the World Cup to Russia demands urgent attention with just three years to go. Then there’s the issue of Qatar; the choosing of the desert gulf stat as host for a summer tournament in 2020 has been mired in controversy from day one. The International Olympics Committee was rocked by a similar scandal but weeded out its corruption and consigned the crisis to a dark stage in its history book.
Blatter will stay in charge until his successor is chosen - a process that starts in four months and could take up until March next year. It brings an end to one of the lengthiest and criticised reigns in sport.