The death of the World Cup

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Will Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022 signal the end of the huge consumer-centric sporting events of the past 40 years?

Have we witnessed the last big Football World Cup? Will brands continue to invest in the same amounts? Will fans continue to come together in the same way? As the World Cup approaches the questions for marketers are mounting.

All eyes are now on Russia. There’s no more time to reshuffle the line-up.. The strategy was set a long time ago. Maybe, at best, one more run-through of the tactics, checking off last minute play by play responsibilities. The pressure is on and the fear of the unknown is unshakeable. Could poor performance lead to managerial heads rolling, team restructuring. Root and branch rebuilding? The world’s best marketers are nervously awaiting their greatest challenge.

A cloud of distrust

The 21st World Cup is under a dark cloud of distrust. Since being awarded the tournament in 2010 Russia has politically provoked and postured, alienating itself from most of us. Downed passenger aircraft, archaic anti LGBT laws, controversial involvement in the Syrian conflict, alleged political tampering in US Elections, poisoned ex-spies, Olympic doping, not exactly living the ‘values’ of the biggest tournament of the world’s biggest game.

Moreso, contrary to the values of tournament sponsors hoping to capitalise on the momentum and interest provided by such a huge consumer event. How can the likes of Adidas, Coca Cola and McDonalds reconcile the enormous investments deposited into such shadowy coffers?

How can Nike, vocal around anti-discrimination, fairness and inclusivity, whilst not an official partner, spend millions on an event whose hosts’ tournament budget exceeds their federal healthcare budget? Hosts who passed a law in 2013 banning members of the same sex holding hands.

FIFA's long shadow

Organisers FIFA are also at odds with the openness, authenticity and trust peddled by major partners. Major figures in the organisation’s governance and ethics committees were dismissed following work investigating the doping of Russian athletes and reports illuminating the financial corruption of former FIFA presidents Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini. Corruption investigated by the United States Government that led to sponsors Budweiser, Visa, McDonald’s and Coca Cola having to issue public statements.

When 87% of today’s youth* believe brands have the power to make the world a better place, maybe those FIFA partners need to find ‘a better place’ to invest if they want to continue to recruit new consumers. The need to land grab sponsorship properties has overridden the need to connect to their future audiences.  

The next generation

So, what of the fans? Where do they stand with the pinnacle of competitive tournament football? Kingmakers investing huge resources into activating personal deals has resulted in individual players becoming bigger than their team on both a domestic and national level. This is, pun intended, a gamechanger for nation vs nation knockout tournaments.

Many studies show that an average teenager feels they have more in common with an age peer halfway around the world than an adult in the same street or indeed country. The erosion of geographic boundaries in the psyche of this generation means nationalism (despite its worrying malevolent adoption in certain political groups) is withering on the vine of youth.

For the past ten years, it has been perfectly acceptable for your favourite player not to play for your local team. Many EMEA football fans actively (i.e. by spending money and time) support a team in La Liga or The Premiership precisely because their marketing crosses international boundaries. Ironically games such as FIFA18 and its predecessors provide new way into football. More educated, more informed about individual players, a broader knowledge of the game leading to an unprecedented knowledge of world football. Couple this with social media access, are we one or maybe two steps away from a fan supporting a team in the World Cup unrelated to his own country?

How do national federations recruit a fanbase who think so differently to their forebears? They must look to The NFL, to MLB and to the juggernaut teams in Europe’s biggest football leagues. Learn how to engage with fans. Media blackouts, scripted pre and post-match conferences and low risk PR are relics of a bygone era of football.

Fans demand access

Socially native fans don’t consume traditional media. Fans follow fellow fans, players from every team on their radar, journalists, opposing fans. A broad network of relevant voices that adds context to their experience of each 90 minutes but more importantly the stories around the game, behind the scenes.

They demand access to uncensored, instant and granular content. And if their national team won’t give them it, they will be happy to go somewhere else for it. Currently, federations won’t offer that level of access. Which means sponsor brands can’t. And non-sponsor brands can’t take the financial risk associated with threateningly litigious organisers.

So the entire premise of a traditional media approach to the World Cup by organisers, federations and brands, is at odds with the latest generation of football fans. Fans demand access, FIFA holds access to ransom. Fans eventually go elsewhere.

New formats and the return of ideals and ideas

The World Cup will no longer give fans their football fix unless there are significant changes. The month-long broadcast controlled by national TV rights holders is fossilising. Smarter purely digital players are usurping networks. Traditionally national broadcasters held rights to big sporting events, then pay per view came in and changed the rules for one-off events such as boxing and league football. But now streaming services such as DAZN are investing heavily. Facebook, YouTube and even short-form specialist Twitter are muscling in and being smart about what they buy. Why buy the 90 minute game when you can buy the highlights?

Brands must change their strategy

The greatest challenge presented to brands by this World Cup and the next in Qatar is not one of morals or monetisation (although they are enormous), but the pace of change. The next generation of football fans move faster than marketing can. Especially when tethered to the shadowy container ship of FIFA. So, throw off the restrictive chains of billion-dollar sponsorships and get back to what matters, what really connects brands and their audience's: ideals and ideas.


Matthew Bennett is co-founder and chief creative officer at Zak Agency

Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons/

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