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Is sponsor pressure the key to FIFA's future?

Political pressure is one thing. But it's the multinational companies and the money they provide that will really focus FIFA's attention.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Of the many millions of people around the world that are outraged with FIFA, few have have any real power to push the teetering organization over the edge. Much hope for change, therefore, is being placed on FIFA's sponsors and it's easy to understand why. The whole merry-go-round runs on money. Take that away, or even threaten to take it away, and it should all grind to a halt.

FIFA sponsorship and partnership is a multi-tiered business. Each World Cup has its own specific international sponsors -- in Brazil, this included McDonald's, Johnson & Johnson and Castrol -- and FIFA also awards rights on a national basis. But those who pay the most and so hold the most power, are FIFA partners, those privileged companies whose association runs between the tournaments and, per FIFA's website, "have the highest level of association with FIFA and all FIFA events."

Currently there are five such partners: adidas, Coca-Cola, Gazprom, Hyundai (with its subsidiary Kia) and Visa. As one talking head on BBC Radio put it Thursday morning, FIFA provides these companies with "access to consumers at points of passion." Football makes people excited, excited people spend money and thanks to these partnerships and the monopolies they bring -- you cannot, for example, buy World Cup tickets using anything that isn't a Visa card -- those excited people spend money in the right places.

Unless the association turns toxic, that is. Two other former FIFA partners -- Sony and Emirates Airline -- have recently allowed their contracts to expire without renewal, and while neither company explicitly blamed the ever-swelling stench of corruption, one assumes that played at least some part in the decision. And sure enough, following yesterday's arrests, four of FIFA's five partners have issued statements expressing various levels of unease.

Of all FIFA's partners, it's adidas with which they have the longest and most iconic relationship. After all, adidas makes the World Cup footballs, and it's arguable that without the German sportswear company, FIFA as we know it wouldn't exist, and world sport as we know it would look very different. Along with a colleague named Patrick Nally, Horst Dassler -- son of Adi Dassler and founder of adidas France -- essentially invented the business of sports sponsorship out of thin air. The money he brought to FIFA helped finance João Havelange 's presidential promises, and FIFA's been three-striped since the late 1970s.

Here's what they've had to say about the arrests and investigations:

The Adidas group is fully committed to creating a culture that promotes the highest standards of ethics and compliance, and we expect the same from our partners. Following today's news, we can therefore only encourage FIFA to continue to establish and follow transparent compliance standards in everything they do.

As for Coca-Cola, who were brought into the FIFA family by Nally around the same time:

This lengthy controversy has tarnished the mission and ideals of the FIFA World Cup and we have repeatedly expressed our concerns about these serious allegations. We expect FIFA to continue to address these issues thoroughly. FIFA has stated that it is responding to all requests for information and we are confident it will continue to cooperate fully with the authorities.

Or, reading between the lines: We're watching and we're worried, and we'd really like you to make this go away ... but we're not about to cut ourselves out of this sweet, sweet loop just yet. It's understandable. Both adidas and Coca-Cola have done extraordinarily well out of their associations with FIFA and the World Cup. A similar statement, albeit slightly punchier, came from Hyundai, which is "extremely concerned about the legal proceedings being taken against certain FIFA executives and will monitor the situation closely."

Two of the 2018 World Cup sponsors have also chimed in on a similar theme. McDonald's take "matters of ethics and corruption very seriously" and feel that "the news from the U.S. Department of Justice is extremely concerning." They "will continue to monitor the situation very closely." So will Budweiser, who "expect all of our partners to maintain strong ethical standards and operate with transparency."

Of the major partners it's been left to Visa to issue what amounts to a bald threat:

Our disappointment and concern with FIFA in light of today's developments is profound. As a sponsor, we expect FIFA to take swift and immediate steps to address these issues within its organization. This starts with rebuilding a culture with strong ethical practices in order to restore the reputation of the games for fans everywhere. [...] It is important that FIFA makes changes now, so that the focus remain on these going forward. Should FIFA fail to do so, we have informed them that we will reassess our sponsorship.

Even if one or two of these sponsors end up quitting FIFA, it's debatable quite how much impact the withdrawal of one or two sponsors might have. From a PR perspective it would be a disaster, but as long as the World Cup itself survives, companies are still going to want their logos around the pitch. In 2006, Visa, despite those "strong ethical practices," were quite happy to gazump MasterCard as FIFA's official financial services partner, even though that was a messy process of questionable provenance that ended with MasterCard suing FIFA before settling out of court.

And while Sony and Emirates Airlines have recently departed, reports suggest that Samsung and Qatar Airways are being lined up to replace them. Whether these deals will be quite so lucrative remain to be seen -- given FIFA's struggles, the companies hold quite a strong hand -- but this does at least suggest that FIFA isn't going to find itself completely friendless in the corporate world.

Indeed, the fifth FIFA partner appears quite unbothered by the emerging scandal. Russian energy company Gazprom -- whose interest in football also extends to sponsorship of the UEFA Champions League, ownership of Russian side Zenit St. Petersburg, shirt sponsorship of German side Schalke 04 and Serbia's Red Star Belgrade, and a marketing partnership with Chelsea -- have today announced that "Gazprom's sponsorship agreement is not affected by the situation around FIFA." In a possibly related development, Russian president Vladimir Putin condemned yesterday's arrests as a U.S.-motivated attempt to strip the country of the 2018 World Cup. Because, of course he did.

However, one set of voices missing is from this chorus: the broadcasters. According to Kieron O'Connor, writing in The Blizzard in 2011, the sale of television rights is FIFA's largest revenue element, and in 2010 amounted to more than double the money received from marketing partnerships -- $2.4 billion as opposed to $1.1 billion. Michael Payne, former head of the marketing division of the International Olympic Committee, reckons the disparity to be even more stark:

It's worth reiterating at this stage precisely how crucial the World Cup is to FIFA. It is, in a broad sense, literally the only thing that makes them any money. It is also -- at least according to O'Connor -- uninsurable in its totality. Their "$650 million policy now only covers the cost of postponement and/or relocation of the event in the case of natural disasters, war and acts of terrorism." That's why, in 2010, they were sitting on a reserve of $1.3 billion.

As an illustration of how crucial television rights are to FIFA, consider the recent deal struck with FOX in the United States. In 2011, FOX paid $425 million to poach the rights for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments from ESPN, only to be met with the prospect (now confirmed) of the Qatar tournament being held in the winter, a busier time of year in the U.S. sports calendar. At the time, FOX president Eric Shanks said "You go into buying a World Cup and you believe it's going to be in the same time frame it's always been. Clearly in America there's much more competition for ratings points."

Rumors of a legal challenge circulated for a while, until FIFA announced in February that FOX had also been awarded the rights to broadcast the 2026 tournament, without those rights being put out to tender. Jérôme Valcke, FIFA's secretary general, stated that no rules had been broken and explained: "We have done what we had to do in order to protect FIFA and the organization of the World Cup." FOX, meanwhile, merely noted that it was a "privilege to be entrusted with these rights in the United States."

A World Cup without adidas is just about imaginable, even though it would look very strange. So too is one without Coca-Cola. But a World Cup with nobody watching? That has been simply inconceivable ever since 1970, when Pele invented color television. That collapses the whole thing. So if the television companies start to flex their muscles, that's when things might get really interesting.