The ethical reservations surrounding this year’s World Cup in Qatar–from deeply concerning migrant worker contracts and deaths to strict social laws in the country–have posed a question: Where do sponsors stand with this tournament?
Much of Qatar and FIFA’s reaction has been to quell concern that this is the pinnacle of sports-washing. On a sporting level, nothing tops the World Cup, with it a global celebration of the most popular discipline in the world. A Nielsen report into the World Cup’s commercial opportunities said it has the highest awareness of any sporting event.
It is also capable of papering over the cracks, and there certainly are some as far as recent host nations are concerned. With its teams now excluded from many recognized sports competitions worldwide, Russia hosted the event in 2018. It was a questionable outcome due to the nation’s profile and corruption in its awarding–and Qatar has since followed. 2026 should be less controversial, with Canada, the US and Mexico sharing the responsibilities.
Nevertheless, sponsors have had a decision to make. For them, there are two clear motivations regarding this competition. The first is the reach – wanting to connect with as many viewers and spectators as possible. The second is ethics – whether associating with FIFA and Qatar stacks up morally. In the latter case, brand perceptions can worsen if a sponsor backs a questionable athlete, team, or, in this case, an event. Regarding FIFA and Qatar, a few have continued their support, despite the issues.
“Brands do care about this stuff. Not all of them. Some always say, ‘Whatever, we just care about the reach,'” notes Andreas Kitzing, a CEO who helps connect companies to sports entities via a digital marketplace called Sponsoo, which he founded.
“They don’t really care about the image effect and think it would be nice if it’s something everyone loves and is super happy with. If not, it’s about getting the brand out to as many people as possible.
“Credit to the many corporations that do care about these issues and are actively shying away from these sponsorships or are evaluating their current sponsorships or new opportunities,” he says, stressing that partnerships should reflect brand values.
The World Cup’s star attraction and schedule for this year mean it’s hard to imagine FIFA and Qatar feeling threatened.
But, as has already happened, brands can shake things up. According to sponsorship expert and bestselling author Kim Skildum-Reid, names such as Coca-Cola, Fly Emirates, Hyundai, Sony and Visa took up the fight on behalf of fans rallying over corruption when Russia and then Qatar won hosting rights in 2010.
From those five, Fly Emirates and Sony have left the FIFA bubble. It made some difference, she explains, yet there is more room for protest, with corruption not the only allegation to have been made.
The disputed number of worker deaths in chosen host Qatar, as well as their contracts, have led to friction between the stagers and people outside. That has overshadowed the entire operation. Much contention for the 2022 edition has centered around these issues.
“At that point, (looking further back) they pushed FIFA into becoming a much less corrupt organization. Sponsors drove that by amplifying fan concerns,” Skildum-Reid says.
“But with the persistent allegations and the proven issues around the kafala immigration sponsorship program that basically almost makes people endangered workers, these sponsors looked at that and the hoo-ha around it and decided they were not going to push as they did around the corruption .
“For a long time, I thought they would continue using their financial clout to improve the situation, and they didn’t.”
A mixed picture
“Most of the sponsors now are issuing bland statements,” she says, pointing to an example from Coca-Cola about human rights pledges in 2026. You have to dig deep to find it. Such announcements point towards box-ticking exercises rather than a coordinated response to FIFA and Qatar.
Regarding corporate conscience overall, it is a mixed picture. Belgian, Danish and Dutch sponsors have been particularly outspoken, choosing to distance themselves from the event, despite the respective countries all taking part in the tournament this year.
For example, ING, a Dutch national team sponsor, said it would steer clear of World Cup-themed advertisements due to the “human rights situation”. Meanwhile, some Belgian and Dutch sponsors have not accepted corporate ticket allocations for the finals.
Despite some action, a wholesale boycott has not come forth. Yet, while that seems the most extreme outcome, it is not the only way to set alarm bells ringing.
It’s worth noting that sponsors and partners are not crucial to FIFA’s revenue, with television broadcasting rights providing more income than any other stream. FIFA’s 2014 Financial Report stated that it accounted for almost €2.5 million ($2.5 billion) of its event-related revenue over the previous three years. In 2018, this number rose to just over €3.1 billion ($3.1 billion)–around half its overall earnings.
Companies and teams do affect the brand image, though. And even a visible message, such as backing the soccer but pledging a commitment to ensuring such World Cups do not receive such support again, would worry FIFA, according to Skildum-Reid. That type of response is yet to gather pace.
So far, regarding the hosting of tournaments, FIFA has coped with any commercial backlash. But it has forced the body towards native or Asian sponsors, which have become more involved than European ones. FIFA acknowledged the increased presence of Chinese sponsors at the last World Cup.
FIFA’s main partners–which do more than typical sponsors to promote the event–for the upcoming edition are Adidas, Coca-Cola, Hyundai-Kia, QatarEnergy, Qatar Airways and Visa.
“FIFA wants to have global, marquee, blue-chip companies as sponsors,” the sponsorship expert adds. “But they have struggled to get them. For Russia and Qatar, it has ended up with many local companies that don’t have a lot of relevance outside of those local areas.
“I think FIFA runs the risk of alienating their potential sponsor base. For their existing one, if they go home, they will struggle. They will have other marquee brands thinking: ‘Wow, if you can’t keep them, why would I invest?'”
Kitzing agrees: “If you have five or six main sponsors and lose two, it’s not easy to find other sponsors that chip into that, especially if you position the event the way they do.”
The risks are clear, but so is soccer’s magnetic pull, no matter what happens around it.
There will always be some sponsorship interest because it’s the World Cup. And, if anything, some might strike cheaper deals, according to Kitzing, who is also critical of the European governing body UEFA for making changes to the Champions League format from 2024. The decision means more participants and games–unpopular with many clubs and fans .
Such controversies are not enough to tip the balance, though, with the on-field action doing the talking. Just.
Nielsen noted that 67% of football fans think brands are more appealing when participating in sports partnerships, compared to 52% of the general population.
“I still think the World Cup will have a positive effect. It’s still soccer. It’s still emotional. It’s still passionate. And it still has an enormous reach, and that won’t change,” Kitzing adds. Incidentally, the introduction of its FIFA+ viewing platform could attract more sponsors, too.
“I think it still has positive marketing outright because its reach is enormous. But it could be much better if the event wasn’t that controversial, and you could also have a much stronger branding image.
“I think the image effect from being associated with the brand is much weaker than at past events,” he concludes.
In itself, that should be a red flag for sponsors.