FIFA looks to the East as it struggles to find sponsors for Russia World Cup

Shafi Musaddique
Mascots for sale ahead of the 2018 Russia World Cup
Mikhail Solunin - Getty Images

With two months to go until the first ball is kicked, international soccer body FIFA is struggling to find sponsors for the 2018 World Cup.

Fewer companies have signed sponsorship deals for this year's tournament in Russia than had done so two months prior to the 2014 competition, held in Brazil.

FIFA divides sponsors into three groups — partners, World Cup sponsors and regional supporters.

Seven "partners," all global brands with financial muscle, have signed up to FIFA's highest level of sponsorship. Brands such as Coca-Cola, Hyundai-Kia Motors, Visa and Adidas have remained FIFA's loyal, long-term partners. Newcomers to FIFA's top roster of sponsors have been limited to the Middle East's Qatar Airways, Russian state oil giant Gazprom and Wanda Group, which calls itself the world's biggest private property developer.

A pressing concern for FIFA is the declining number of businesses sponsoring its prime tournament.

Five companies have agreed to funnel money to FIFA in return for logos plastered across Russian stadiums and other media exposure during the month-long World Cup, compared to a total of eight in Brazil.

A trio of Western brands — Continental, Johnson & Johnson and Castrol — opted not to renew their sponsorship deals in 2015, the same year as reports of corruption at the top of FIFA came to light. Instead, Chinese firms have stepped up to fill the void left by U.S. and European brands.

Mengniu, China's second-largest dairy company, signed a sponsorship deal in December, granting it the right to air commercials across a total of 64 World Cup games in June and July. The company is among the five firms listed in FIFA's second group of tournament-only sponsors.

Sports marketer and former FIFA employee Patrick Nally said FIFA's toxic brand is the main driving force behind Western firms disassociating themselves from sponsoring the World Cup.

"Clearly, FIFA has become a toxic brand," Nally said. "It has been a corrupt organization. Companies are concerned with their own image nowadays so you can understand why it (FIFA) isn't an attractive proposition."

U.S. prosecutors arrested seven FIFA officials in a raid at FIFA's Swiss headquarters in May 2015, culminating in a ban from football activities for the body's former president Sepp Blatter.

Nally, who worked on bringing Coca-Cola in as a sponsor for FIFA and helped establish the organization's marketing packages for the 1978 and 1982 World Cups, believes the alignment of Chinese, Russian and Middle Eastern companies shows "political decisions" have replaced decisions made on a purely commercial basis at the top of FIFA.

He added that nothing can change the perception of FIFA has a "toxic brand," but did propose one solution. "FIFA will continue to be in decline and should consider a complete name change or brand image change."

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