Brand Strategy Sponsorship Sports Marketing

Qatar World Cup sponsors must be ready to deal with ugly side of the beautiful game

By Amar Singh, Head of football content & strategy

April 1, 2022 | 7 min read

Amar Singh, senior vice-president for MKTG Sport and Entertainment, warns Fifa World Cup sponsors that the usual playbook will not stand them in good stead when the tournament reaches Qatar this winter.


Sponsors may be looking to the upcoming World Cup with both a sense of excitement and trepidation / Adobe Stock

The Fifa World Cup draw begins the countdown for the biggest sporting event on the planet – but the tournament has been mired in controversy since Sepp Blatter announced Qatar as the host nation 12 years ago. This World Cup takes us into uncharted territory in more ways than one.

For marketeers activating around the tournament – either as official partners or so-called ‘ambush’ brands – the usual summer tournament plans are insufficient.

Set to be held for the first time in November and December, the timing and choice of nation are both disruptive factors to the sporting and marketing calendars, which throw up potential opportunities and pitfalls. Every World Cup host presents its fair shares of controversies and challenges in the run-up – but the negative headlines are largely forgotten after the first ball is kicked. Just look at Russia 2018.

However, while there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Qatar 2022 could play host to incredible football, it could also be a powder keg of socially-charged issues from start to finish.

I have no doubt that stakeholders aligning with this tournament – from governing bodies, sponsors and broadcasters to the players themselves – will need to have a proactive comms strategy coupled with an authentic commitment to drive positive change to ensure they stay on the right side of public sentiment.

Fans in 2022 are as socially conscious and vocal as ever.

A growing proportion of viewers expect sport to be a force for good, and they are not afraid to use the various platforms available to them to demand more from the teams and players they support. In this climate, brands can become quickly spooked by negative sentiment and talks of boycotts.

Globally, 86% of fans say they are interested in cause-related marketing – this has grown by 42% since 2020, according to MKTG’s audience study Decoding the Modern Fan.

Qatar’s poor record on human rights from worker welfare to the treatment of the country’s LGBTQ+ citizens remains a huge issue as the tournament approaches. As the oil-rich Gulf state has raced to build the stadiums and infrastructure needed to host the event, the treatment of migrant labourers has been severely rebuked by human rights organizations amid claims of unsafe working conditions, low pay and restrictive labor laws.

Furthermore, an investigation in The Guardian reported that more than 6,500 migrant workers died in the emirate since the World Cup was awarded – a figure disputed by the country’s authorities.

Fifa’s stance is that the tournament can have a legacy for improving human rights in the region, but groups such as Human Rights Watch have accused Fifa of covering up the slow progress made by the country’s authorities in this area.

Last week we saw the England camp look to get a handle on the issue when the Three Lions players and staff received a detailed briefing on human rights in Qatar. It came after other teams including Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands wore T-shirts before internationals to draw attention to the cause.

Gareth Southgate, who has supported his players kneeling for racial equality before each game since 2020, has suggested that the team will be issuing some form of message calling for positive change, coupled with a proactive initiative on the ground, working with groups such as Amnesty International.

Partners of these teams and Fifa should be approaching this tournament with the same diligence.

If you are a brand activating around the World Cup and your values run contrary to the inequality we have seen in Qatar, then you will be expected to not only communicate this but also pair it with real action.

We have recent precedent for this.

At the European Championships last year, sponsors had to respond swiftly when LGBTQ+ rights entered the discourse of the tournament after Hungary passed controversial anti-LGBTQ+ laws.

Given Qatar’s stance on LGBTQ+ rights, there is no reason to suggest this talking point won’t flare up again during the World Cup.

Brands should begin preparing now to demonstrate their support. The consumer demands it. Similarly, as we witnessed after England’s defeat to Italy on penalties in the Euro 2020 final, racism can rear its ugly head.

The abhorrent online abuse received by Jaden Sancho, Bukayo Saka and Marcus Rashford dominated the aftermath of the final as many rallied around the three young stars. It is likely that some teams will continue taking the knee, while others will not. Some fans will support the gesture, and others will boo.

Putting the act of taking the knee aside, it’s highly likely that there will be players at the tournament who could use the platform to make a statement about racial inequality.

As we approach the first World Cup since the killing of George Floyd led to widespread global protests, is your organization credible and diverse enough to champion racial equality?

It’s not just the controversial location that has thrown a curveball at experienced marketers – it’s the timing too. From a campaign planning perspective, the ramifications of holding a World Cup from November to December are significant.

A World Cup is second only to Christmas when it comes to impact on the attention economy. Now it collides with Christmas. The battle for eyeballs and conversions will be more intense than ever. This is the first time we will see a major football tournament coinciding with the heart of the peak advertising season.

We should expect viewing figures for the World Cup to reach new heights. Fifa claimed that 3.52 billion people watched the World Cup in Russia in 2018, including on TV at home, out of home and on digital platforms. Qatar will almost certainly surpass this. Once the action gets under way, the 2022 Fifa World Cup promises plenty of on-the-field narratives to capture the imagination.

It will serve as the last dance for two of the game’s greats, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo; show a formidable France side that could be only the third in history to retain the World Cup; or realize the tantalizing prospect that Southgate’s maturing England team could bring it home at last. This is all the stuff of dreams for marketers looking to capitalize on the magic of football.

The best-prepared organizations will reap the benefits and avoid the pitfalls.

Amar Singh is senior vice-president for MKTG Sport and Entertainment.

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