Soccer Brand Strategy Business Leadership

Will the Qatar World Cup change the sports marketing playbook?


By Sam Anderson, Network Editor

December 2, 2022 | 9 min read

The World Cup is in full swing, but not without a raft of sponsor controversies. With so many brand perils on display, what can we learn about the unwritten rulebook for sports marketing? We asked six experts.

The Fifa World Cup on a goal line

Do brand dramas at the World Cup show that the sports brand environment is evolving? / Rhett Lewis via Unsplash

Jules Griffith, global marketing director, Lively

As Bill Bernbach once wrote, "A principle isn't a principle until it costs you something”. When Fifa announced that players wearing rainbow armbands would be immediately booked in matches at the World Cup, it was clear that any England and Wales players who do have principles would be made to pay for them. In the end, players backed down; they have a job to do and perhaps other ways of making the same point; call it back to the drawing board. Let’s hope so anyway.

It will be interesting to see the creative response from the brands who have claimed to be on the side of representation. It's an open goal in many ways: show people that you care, in the face of laws that criminalize sexuality. Do it at such volume and with such emotional weight that you force change - adland should be more than capable of this.

The impact of Qatar on the sports marketing playbook? It should remind us of the power of advertising: the power to provoke real change.

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Dan Marsh, brand and campaign director at Radley Yeldar

The response to Qatar 2022 shows that fans will vocally call out perceived hypocrisy (or downright corruption) of brands and organizations they see exploiting their love of sport. Modern sport and culture have collided in a powerful way.

As ever, brands should think long-term, rather than tactically, and act with authenticity. They can’t expect to benefit from the popularity and reach that sport offers without considering what else their association brings with it. The Colin Kaepernicks and Marcus Rashfords of the world have shown that players are prepared to open themselves up to scrutiny by using their platforms positively and proactively to take a stand on social or political issues.

Why should a brand seeking commercial benefit from those very platforms not be expected to make similar sacrifices – and open themselves up to the same scrutiny?

Lee Gibbons, managing director, Sport Unlimited (part of Unlimited)

Qatar’s record of human rights is abysmal. As Jurgen Klopp said, a stand should have been taken when Fifa awarded “it 12 years ago”. The tournament shouldn’t be there, but it is. Football can’t fix the issues in a 4-week tournament, but it can shine a light on them, and we know that’s becoming more and more important to sports fans. 64% of UK sports fans agree that for brands who sponsor teams and individuals they love, ‘brand purpose’ is more important now than it was pre-Covid.

Sponsor controversies or challenges in certain sectors like alcohol are not unique to Qatar (Loi Évin anyone?) but this feels different; not in the emotional connection fans have with their team or players, but in the stance and decisions made by Qatar and Fifa.

What we know will happen is that the interest, passion and engagement of the teams and players involved will gather momentum match-on-match. But tournament football is a crowded space; players, federations and Fifa all have Partners vying for attention. Those who understand the true emotions of fans, who go beyond what they say and do and consider how fans ‘feel’ (and use that insight to inform their creative), will win.

Dan Lord, creative director, Jack Morton Dubai

Designing experiences for a sports audience means understanding the behavior of fan communities. Local supporter groups have become global, digital communities that want always-on access to their clubs.

Designing with fans rather than for fans, and viewing fans as creators and curators of experiences, enables brands to position themselves at the center of sports culture with an authentic voice.

The World Cup in Qatar will attract a melting pot of fan cultures. But this diverse group all want to play, compete, create, stream, share and watch; hungry for closer connection to the world’s greatest players. Those that can layer experiences to satisfy these fan communities will win.

Christie Clark, marketing manager, Found

The campaigns running during this World Cup have solidified my belief that sports marketing is something that you should do well or not do at all.

The rewards for doing good sports marketing are phenomenal: you’re placing yourself adjacent to beloved IPs and aligning your brand and business with beloved entities that inspire a great deal of passion. It's never in question that successful sports marketing can elevate your brand to new heights.

But passion is the link between fans and teams and if you sully that relationship, or enter the space without a proper understanding of what you’re doing and what the fans care about (as I believe several companies have done this year), the backlash can be overwhelming.

Sports marketing’s not for the faint of heart and I hope that brands who’ve been involved with this World Cup have done their due diligence in scoping out how they’re going to deal with the negative (and positive) reactions that they’re going to get in response to their campaigns because very few fans in the space are ambivalent.

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Grant Hunter, global executive creative director, Iris

Actions speak louder than words, so what does the World Cup signal to the world? When a yellow card (or ban) for wearing a rainbow armband that shows your allyship to the LGBTQ+ community, isn't this a direct assault on the freedom of speech? Interviews with players speak to their sense of being controlled and fear of sanctions for speaking freely. England took the knee; Germany placed their hands over their mouths; the Danish FA have postured to leave and encourage other UEFA nations to join them.

There are times when we need to stop focusing on competition and put our energy, expertise, and passion into collaboration. That is when we can make a difference: when we work together. What if all 32 captains stood united and agreed to wear the rainbow armband, accepting the threatened yellow cards? That would show true backbone and allyship. As marketers and brands, we could have a similar power in doing the same. And we should.

And on sustainability: unfortunately, this World Cup is blatantly not the carbon-neutral event as billed. It’s quite simply a mass act of greenwashing.

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