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World’s two biggest sports have scandal-hit Blatter and Ecclestone – but do big brand sponsors really mind?

Well, what a week of wasted moral outrage that was, even if it did produce one of The Sun’s finest headlines for a very long time.

Make no mistake. “Splatter Blatter” will have sold extra copies of the red-top, but do nothing to remove the Teflon Man himself, whose life’s achievement has been to carve himself an impregnable position as world football’s supremo.

In a way, you’ve got to admire him. Like Bernie Ecclestone, whom he resembles in a variety of ways, FIFA boss Sepp Blatter is a master tactician who is at the top of his own, very particular, game: not the administration of Formula One or FIFA, but the administration of power.

The secret of their supremacy is the same. It lies not (or very little) in formal status, but in a second-to-none understanding of how to manipulate an opaque global system that has no loyalty beyond its own self-perpetuation.

To be sure, FIFA and F1 are, or have, venerable governing bodies guided by what appear to be democratically elected representatives acting in accordance with a constitution. In reality, the election of these officials are manipulated to suit insiders; and the workings of the institutions they represent are so complex and well-defended that they defy almost any outside attempt to hold them to account.

The readiest parallel is the so-called Rotten Borough system that prevailed in Britain before 1832. Boiled down to essentials, it involved the King and his chosen First Minister fixing a parliamentary majority by procuring the election of their chosen placemen in all the seats that actually mattered. For placemen read “men in blazers”, and you get the picture.

Corruption was the indispensable lubricant of this system. It involved greasing people’s palms, and not just at election time either. The dispersal and retraction of patronage – primarily offices of state awarded on the basis of interest rather than merit – was key to successful management.

Recognise the parallel? Allegations of corruption have plagued Blatter’s four consecutive terms of office, culminating in the 2018 World Cup scandal that broke earlier this year. As for F1 scandals, need I enumerate them?

But what do Blatter or Ecclestone (pictured) care about that? The same opacity which protects their organisations from outside investigation also insulates their ringmasters from public criticism – and any punitive measure that might result from it. Hence the stream of crass remarks that regularly issue from their mouths. For Bernie, Hitler was an OK bloke who built excellent roads even if he did later succumb to a power complex. For Blatter, racism on the pitch is a non-issue which can be settled with a handshake at the end of the match. Out of touch, clearly. But then, so what? They’re also out of reach, and they know it.

Blatter has deftly deflected calls for his departure from the likes of David Cameron, David Beckham and The Sun by portraying the outcry as a case of sour grapes. Only Britain has worked itself up into a national lather over racism on the pitch. Why? Because England lost out in the contest to become 2018 World Cup host, and is now conducting a vendetta against the man perceived to be its nemesis.

So, can he now blow the final whistle and move on? Not quite. If there’s one chink in Blatter’s armour, it’s money – or rather its threatened withdrawal. What if the sponsors – household brand names, with household reputations to maintain – deem he has gone too far and pull the plug on the hundreds of millions of pounds a year that FIFA depends upon for its survival?

Ordinarily, that simply wouldn’t happen. However much they may privately tut-tut about Bernie’s ex-wife spending £12m on their daughter’s nuptials, Max Mosley’s grubby sexual antics or Blatter’s moral insensitivity, the last thing they are going to do is scupper a strategic investment with a noble gesture. Their investment is, after all, in the global game, not the organisation and the people who lead it. And their justification for inaction the not unreasonable conjecture that most of the people who follow football and motor-racing with a passion have little knowledge and less interest in the shenanigans of the administrators behind them.

The sponsors’ uncharacteristic response to Blatter’s racism episode is what, in fact, makes it so interesting. True, most of FIFA’s six official partners have played entirely true to form. Coca-Cola has categorically rejected a review of its sponsorship; while Visa, Hyundai/Kia, Sony and Adidas have contented themselves with more or less bland statements condemning racism in sport. But Emirates has broken ranks by taking the almost unprecedented step of reviewing its sponsorship.

Whatever next? Not Blatter’s resignation, for sure. But perhaps the beginning of the end of his reign.

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About Stuart Smith

Stuart Smith is one of the most incisive and knowledgeable commentators on global marketing. He was a long-time editor of Marketing Week during the period when it was the UK's leading marketing, media and advertising specialist publication. Visit Stuart Smith Blog.
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