If Canadian soccer fans who journeyed to Doha for the World Cup found themselves feeling homesick during the first couple of weeks of the tournament, they might have dropped into an unusual pop-up restaurant in the city’s downtown to sample a taste of home – with a twist. Every day at noon, the CONCACAFE served up free meals fusing some of the cuisines of the 41 countries that comprise FIFA’s CONCACAF conference: unlikely dishes such as mac and cheese tacos with a side of plantain, a jerk-chicken burger with za’atar fries and mojo dipping sauce, and a beef shawarma poutine.
The initiative – along with a number of others like it in Doha – was a brainchild of SDI Sports, a Toronto-based sports-marketing agency that has developed a reputation as a trustworthy creator of onsite fan experiences. In Canada, the company may be best known for the travelling circus known as Rogers Hometown Hockey, which it helped create and then managed for its eight-season run.
Much has been made about Qatar using the World Cup to market itself to the world. But there are also many Western companies, such as SDI, that are helping the Qataris to make the event a success, leveraging it to expand their own prospects and reputation.
SDI, which boasts about 2,000 employees across Canada, the United States and Qatar, is an official agency of record for fan engagement and experiential marketing for Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, which is overseeing the World Cup. It has been advising the Qatar Football Association for the past several years, and did a refresh of the QFA’s brand to get it ready for its big moment at the World Cup.
Its World Cup work also includes the creation of Canada Soccer House, a luxe retreat for Canadian fans that took over the premium restaurant and pool deck of the Hilton Pearl Doha hotel for prematch rallies while the Canadian team was still in the tournament, as well as similar marketing installations that touted the environmental bona fides of the World Cup sponsor Kia and a fan-celebration site of FIFA’s CONMEBOL conference.
The company is headed by Roy Roedger, a Canadian-born former hockey forward who was something of a star when he played right wing for the West German national team in the 1980s. (He was instrumental in an upset of Canada at the 1987 Canada Cup.) In early 2010, Roedger travelled to Doha to feel out what opportunities there might be as the country undertook a two-decade effort to modernize its economy, society, infrastructure and environmental policies under what it calls the Qatar National Vision 2030. The government noted sport would play a key role in that plan.
“I thought any country that’s got ‘sport’ in its vision is probably a good place for us to nose around,” Roedger said in a recent interview. “Then they won the World Cup, and things really took off.”
Already, SDI was known as a dependable, creative partner that could execute on logistics: not always a slam-dunk in an industry where creatives like to dream big without thinking about the nuts and bolts of actually building their dreams.
“We met with four different companies. SDI won the contract the minute they walked in,” Scott Moore, who was president of Rogers Sportsnet at the time, recalled in an interview this week, discussing the origins of Hometown Hockey. “The other three were very corporate marketing companies. SDI came in with hockey sweaters, logos painted on their faces. They clearly had a passion for the project.”
The original idea that Moore proposed was to visit a small town with a mobile TV studio and offer a few activities for the locals. “SDI expanded it significantly,” he said. “It’s one of those things: You come up with a concept and you share it with a partner, and you see it come to life better than you imagined it. That’s what SDI did.”
Patricia Jaecklein, SDI’s vice-president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said in an interview from Doha, where she has lived on and off since 2013, that the company’s decade-plus in the country, learning the local quirks and customs, enabled it to deliver what it promises.
“We always joke that we have wasta,” said Jaecklein, using an Arabic word that refers to having good connections, or clout. Sometimes the term is equated with corruption, but it also has a more innocuous application. “It’s a word that’s used a lot over here, basically referring to knowing who to speak to, in order to get things done.”
A slick global festival such as the World Cup is built on a million tiny logistical puzzle pieces that need to fall into place in the right order and at the right time. Behind the scenes, it’s all deeply unsexy. But if something gums up the works, the entire undertaking can go sideways in a hurry.
On Nov. 1, Jaecklein explained, a raft of restrictions were put into place by FIFA as Qatar began to gird for the arrival of millions of visitors. “You have to have special vehicle-access permits, you need to go to remote search locations, all of your deliveries get sealed in, and then you have a have a police escort to the site,” she explained. For companies trying to construct large-scale fan spectacles with stages and other hardware they may need to import, that could be a problem if they didn’t anticipate the hurdles.
“I can tell you, there were frustrations for agencies that didn’t know about those nuances and how stringent security would be here,” Jaecklein said. “That’s why, when we say we have wasta – because of course sometimes we need to bend the rules – that’s where we were able to get to the right people, to really help us progress and be on time with everything.
“It’s super interesting how a World Cup gets delivered.”
From the outside, of course, much of the talk has been about how ethically thorny this World Cup has been.
Roedger recognizes SDI is in a fraught field, that Qatar has overseen human-rights abuses, from horrific working conditions for migrant workers to the criminalization of free speech and homosexuality.
“It’s definitely something we’re aware of, but I would say that we don’t feel that when we’re in the country,” he said.
Roedger says the company has held regular town halls for employees to voice their concerns about the work in Qatar. “Our thinking is, we’re actually helping to build Qatar. We’re bringing in Canadian expertise, and we’re helping people from around the world that we work with, understand the standards and best practices.” He noted that SDI only uses Canadian labour practices, and believes it can serve as a model in that regard.
“We really believe in the power of sport to bring people together,” he added. “Even with all the complaints and so on, it’s making people have a conversation, it’s forcing people to be aware of things.”