Modern Marketing Brand Strategy

‘Money or morals?’ Uefa pressured to extinguish Gazprom sponsorship amid Ukraine invasion

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By John McCarthy | Media editor

February 24, 2022 | 8 min read

Europe’s footballing body, Uefa, is under pressure to terminate its lucrative Champions League sponsorship deal with Russia-backed energy giant Gazprom, or risk igniting a scandal by sportswashing a warring nation. What should it do?

Uefa understands the power of football in driving international cohesion. Its mission statement says it needs to ”lead and be the standard-bearer for good governance, working together with the whole football community and ensuring transparent and democratic processes”. It also promises to champion ”anti-violence, anti-discrimination and inclusivity campaigns”.

Gazprom

'Money or morals': Uefa pressured to extinguish Gazprom sponsorship amid Ukraine invasion

So where does this leave its relationship with Gazprom, the Russian-state energy behemoth that has become one of the proudest and most prominent sponsors of its showpiece competition, the Champions League?

Writing in the Telegraph, football correspondent Sam Wallace claims that ”Russian warmongering has turned Uefa’s reliance on Gazprom money into a no-win nightmare”. Meanwhile, fellow top football writer Henry Winter claims: ”Sometimes Uefa just has to recognize the game should be about morals not money.”

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It’s a geopolitical tinderbox. In his speech announcing sanctions on Russia in the House of Commons this week, UK prime minister Boris Johnson said: “[There’s] no chance of holding football tournaments in a Russia that invades sovereign countries”. Later, British foreign secretary Liz Truss called for English teams to boycott the Champions League final in St Petersburg in May should any of them get there – and should Uefa resist mounting pressure to move the biggest event in its domestic football calendar.

In 2021, Uefa described Gazprom as one of its “most trusted partners”. As tensions escalate, the question now is whether the €40m a season the deal reputedly amounts to is worth the reputational harm.

It’s not just Uefa in the firing line. At the national level, Germany’s FC Schalke 04 is also now in the spotlight over its Gazprom shirt sponsorship. In its coverage of the team, German tabloid Bild is now blocking out the sponsor’s logo with a message of solidarity for Ukraine, as pointed out by Sportsbusiness’s Martin Ross.

Actions and comms

Sports marketing and comms consultant Dan Tunna says this episode represents a ”significant reputational issue for Uefa, which now has a huge decision that essentially boils down to money or morals”.

He tells The Drum: ”Many will say that football sold its soul a long time ago, but the threat of the energy company’s majority owner waging war on a neighboring territory is indefensible. It’s a situation that would be hard to conceive on Uefa’s signing of this deal, however when you partner with a state-owned entity you are clearly aligning your brand geopolitically by association and must anticipate all possible consequences.”

He believes that Uefa will ”surely” move the final, but says it has a bigger decision to make on canceling the partnership.

”When the European Super League was proposed last year, Uefa was able to take the moral high ground and fan resistance helped strengthen its position, and that of the Champions League competition. A failure to withdraw from the Gazprom relationship now will badly tarnish Uefa and leave it open to attack once again. This time the court of public opinion will find it far harder to side with a body that will have, by proxy, supported Russia’s military action in Ukraine.”

Amar Singh, senior vice-president for content and comms at MKTG Sport and Entertainment, agrees that any ”partnership with the energy corporation cannot be divorced entirely from the actions of Russia”.

He says: ”We are in the midst of a very tense geopolitical situation with far-reaching potential ramifications, so it’s absolutely vital that Uefa’s response is swift and decisive, but also measured. Its relationship with Gazprom will be locked down by the terms of their contract and I am sure lawyers are discussing the termination clauses around whether the actions of a majority owner constitute bringing the competition or partnership into disrepute.”

He asks whether the due diligence was done before the partnership was signed in 2012 and points out that Uefa must take into consideration the wider interests of its member associations and other commercial backers.

”Negative sentiment around Uefa will concern partners and damage the integrity of its competitions. Can it reasonably argue that a Champions League final in Russia – which could be out of bounds for many fans from western Europe – and a partnership with a Russian state-owned corporation is for the good of the game?”

In a piece for the FT, sports marketer Tim Crow wondered if a measure as drastic as terminating the 10-year deal would really be on the cards. “You’d have to show cause to tear up this sponsorship contract, that would be a big call.”

Uefa is giving little away, responding to press enquiries by saying only that it will ”continue to closely monitor the situation”.

The decision may yet be taken out of its hands, with Nato and its allies progressing with sanctions against Russia. So far these do not include Gazprom and its backers, but Russian businesses have already been targeted and there are likely more to come as tensions escalate.

UPDATE: 24.02, 14.05 GMT - Schalke distances itself from Gazprom and the Champion's League final will be moved from St Petersburg.

UPDATE: 24.02 14.36 GMT - Uefa condemns conflict in Ukraine. Says it is ready to extend a hand to the Ukrainian people.

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