Major sponsors with millions of dollars at stake in the World Cup are ratcheting up pressure on soccer's global governing body to clear up serious bribery allegations.
In a rare public rebuke of the often scandal-plagued Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), five of the half-dozen biggest sponsors of one of the world's most popular and profitable sporting events are demanding a full investigation of the circumstances surrounding the controversial selection of Qatar to host the World Cup in 2022.
The five major sponsors – German sports gear maker Adidas, Visa, Sony, Coca-Cola and South Korean car maker Hyundai – have been joined by lower-tier BP and Anheuser-Busch InBev in making their concerns known ahead of Thursday's kickoff. Only Dubai-based Emirates, an airline that stands to reap hefty gains from its Qatari business, has remained silent.
The sponsors are eager to restore the spotlight to the world's most popular game and protect their multimillion-dollar investments.
Huge sums are at stake. FIFA garners a whopping $1.5-billion (U.S.) from all of its sponsors over the four years of the World Cup cycle. Including worldwide television fees, the Brazilian event is expected to stuff FIFA's coffers with a record $4-billion in revenue, two-thirds more than in South Africa in 2010. And each of the 32 teams that reached the event through lucrative elimination tournaments brings its own corporate backers – a combined total of 421, led by little Costa Rica, with 36 sponsors.
"What official sponsors are doing here is making a statement: We don't want to be aligned with anything that would have a negative consequence for our marketing efforts. So we're letting the public know that this is a deep concern for us," said Keith McIntyre, chief executive officer of sports marketing consultant KMAC Group in Burlington, Ont.
Adidas, whose lengthy ties to FIFA date to 1970 and whose current sponsorship deal runs another 16 years, put it bluntly. "The negative tenor of the public debate around FIFA at the moment is neither good for football nor for FIFA and its partners."
Host Brazil has already garnered considerable bad press over serious construction delays on stadiums and transportation infrastructure. And public anger has run high over the $11-billion (U.S.) cost of staging the 32-day event in a dozen cities at a time when the government has limited spending on essential public services.
But that pales beside the scandal long brewing over the strange choice for 2022 of tiny Qatar, a country with sizzling summer temperatures and little history of soccer.
FIFA has already ordered a probe into the awarding of the lucrative event to the Middle Eastern country. The report, by New York lawyer Michael Garcia, is not scheduled to be released until after the World Cup.
But the sponsors plainly want to ensure that it leads to changes in the way FIFA conducts its affairs – including a possible housecleaning at the senior levels of the organization. Their decision to go public came in the wake of an explosion of criticism on social media after Britain's Sunday Times published documents alleging that millions of dollars in bribes changed hands.
Thanks to the rapid rise of social media and the enormous increase in soccer interest in North America, sponsors are quick to register concerns over any actions that could taint the product and diminish the value of their big-dollar investments.
"I don't think they're going to put up with the old regime and the old way of doing business," said Brian Cooper, president and CEO of Toronto-based S&E Sponsorship Group, which represents sponsors in their dealings with owners of sports properties. "More so than ever, the Coca-Colas and the Visas and the Sonys and Adidases are stepping up. The dollars are so significant and if that property is tainted in any way, it hurts them."
Combative long-time FIFA president Sepp Blatter, 78, has weathered previous assaults on FIFA's reputation and his own credibility and more than one attempted ouster. In typical fashion, he has dismissed the latest allegations as the product of "racism" by his organization's critics.
"Once again there is a sort of storm against FIFA relating to the Qatar World Cup," Mr. Blatter told a meeting of the Confederation of African Football in Sao Paulo, Brazil. "Sadly there's a great deal of discrimination and racism and this hurts me."