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In America, nothing compares to the Super Bowl for TV ratings and marketing frenzy. But globally, the World Cup is king—and with soccer growing in popularity in the U.S., the monthlong soccer tourney has emerged as a marketing force that brands can’t ignore.
The 2022 FIFA World Cup poses plenty of challenges, however, including an unusual start date and geopolitical issues surrounding the host country of Qatar.
Below, what brands and fans need to know about the event, which begins in 28 days.
The global soccer tournament is played every four years. Qatar hosts this year’s tourney, which begins Nov. 20 and ends with the Dec. 18 final. The 32 qualifying teams are broken into eight groups for round-robin play, with the top two teams in each group advancing to knockout rounds. The U.S. is in Group B, along with England, Iran and Wales.
The #FIFAWorldCup groups are set 🤩
We can't wait! 🏆#FinalDraw pic.twitter.com/uaDfdIvbaZ
Yes, but FIFA moved it to the November date, as winter nears in the Northern Hemisphere, because of the extreme summer heat in Qatar.
FIFA’s official corporate partners are Adidas, Coca-Cola Co., Hyundai-Kia, Visa, Qatar Airways, QatarEnergy and Wanda Commercial Properties. Brands with specific World Cup sponsorships include Budweiser, McDonald’s, Crypto.com, Vivo, Byju’s Learning, Hisense and China Mengniu Dairy Company Limited. PepsiCo-owned Frito-Lay holds a North American regional sponsorship.
Sponsors for the U.S. men’s team include Visa, Volkswagen, Nike, Anheuser-Busch, Allstate, Chipotle, AT&T, Deloitte, Biosteele, Gogo Squeeze and Hyperice.
See the FIFA World Cup Commercials released so far
Fox Sports has English-language broadcast rights under a deal worth a reported $425 million that was struck in 2011 and also included the 2018 tournament. Fox Sports will split coverage this year between Fox and FS1.
NBC Universal-owned has Spanish-language rights in a deal valued at $600 million. NBC’s Peacock will stream Spanish-language coverage of every match, with the first 12 matches on Peacock’s free tier and the 52 games on Peacock Premium.
Globally, it’s massive. The last World Cup in 2018 (played in Russia and held from June 14 to July 15) drew a TV audience of 3.5 billion, which equates to more than half of the global population ages four and up, according to Reuters.
In the U.S., average 2018 ratings plummeted 37% to 5.04 million viewers across Fox and Telemundo. One factor to blame: The U.S. team failed to qualify for the tourney. The U.S. team is back this Cup, but there’s another ratings wildcard: With the tourney slated for Nov. 20 to Dec. 18, there are a lot more sports viewing competition than normal, including the NFL, NBA and NHL.
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The Gulf nation is the first Middle Eastern country to host the Cup and the smallest host site ever, with a population of 2.4 million. But it is Qatar’s human rights record that is drawing the most attention. Activists, including Human Rights Watch, have alleged that thousands of migrant workers have died from the heat and poor working conditions while constructing World Cup venues in Qatar. And critics have also cited the country’s laws against same-sex relations.
Yes, to some degree. Jim Andrews, a sponsorship expert and founder and CEO of A-Mark Partnership Strategies, recently told Ad Age that FIFA sponsors are “really in between a rock and hard place.” Sponsors have “spent a ton of money on buying these rights” and are “beholden to shareholders to do whatever they can to sell as many products and services as they can.”
Still, fans appear to be somewhat forgiving: A Morning Consult poll released earlier this year found that 41% of soccer fans in the U.S. support companies sponsoring the Cup, with 19% opposed.
But brands are sure to face scrutiny, especially on social media, as the Cup draws closer. Consider the backlash against soccer legend David Beckham for appearing in a 30-minute video for Qatar Tourism called “David Beckham’s Qatar Stopover.” The U.K.’s Independent newspaper summarized some of the criticism, including this tweet:
In a place where it’s illegal to be gay, and women have to be chaperoned by men, am really not sure I would call the place perfection.
Oh and that’s before we talk about the thousands of slaves who have died building FIFA’s stadiums. https://t.co/KjodBZMYDz
Chris Ross, an analyst with Gartner, suggested that some brands will take the “blissfully unaware strategy,” citing Gartner research that nearly two-thirds of consumers don’t make purchase decisions based on their political or social beliefs. But he adds that “not acknowledging anything about Qatar would likely come off, or be called out as, insensitive.”
Ross, whose perspective was shared via a Gartner spokeswoman, also said to “expect plenty of inspirational marketing ramping up to, and during, the World Cup. A savvy brand may find a way to weave narratives that implicitly address the controversy with positive messages they would like aligned to their products and services—but whether it works is a different story.”
Related: Women athlete sponsorship deals grow by 20%
Amnesty International and other human rights organizations are running a campaign called “#PayUpFIFA” that urges FIFA to establish a fund of at least $440 million to compensate migrant workers who suffered during World Cup preparations. Amnesty International says four sponsors have voiced support for the campaign, including AB InBev, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and Adidas. Those statements of support, published here, vary in specificity, however.
So have four of FIFA's biggest sponsors – @adidas, @Budweiser, @CocaCola and @McDonalds have all stated their support for remedy for workers (others never responded…).
FIFA's sponsors gave it $1.6 billion in the four years leading to the 2022 World Cuphttps://t.co/sv0qAPNWTi
Yes, holding the event in such a small country poses some logistical issues for brands and sponsors that use it as a hospitality event. Some visitors, including guests of sponsors, are expected to stay in neighboring countries. Qatar Airways is marketing “match day” shuttles from Muscat or Dubai to Doha. World Cup organizers are trying to fill housing demand by using three cruise ships as soccer fan hotels.
A third cruise ship was hired by World Cup organizers in Qatar to operate as a soccer fan hotel docked in Doha Port during the tournament. https://t.co/KytIuO0Nj6
Coca-Cola plans to host 1,000 guests, including bottlers and other partners, Brad Ross, VP of global sports and entertainment marketing, told Ad Age in late August. “We really tried to accommodate the majority of our guests for the quarterfinal, semifinals and finals within Qatar,” he said.
The upside of having the event in a small country is that the stadiums will be closer together than in previous World Cups, which are typically spread across cities many miles apart. In Qatar, all eight stadiums are within 40 kilometers of central Doha. “Fans now probably for the first time ever will be able to see more than one game a day because the distance between stadiums is actually pretty close to each other,” Ross said.
FIFA reported this week that it had already sold 2.89 million tickets for the tournament’s 64 matches across eight stadiums. It has also sold 240,000 hospitality packages, which as Reuters reported cost more than $34,300 per person for semifinal and final matches and include perks such as luxurious stadium lounges, “some with free-flowing alcoholic drinks.”
Public alcohol sales are normally prohibited in Qatar, a predominantly Muslim country. But the country has eased some restrictions for the Cup, to the benefit of sponsor AB InBev. Budweiser beer will be sold within ticket perimeters surrounding each stadium but not in the stands, Reuters reported last month. An AB InBev representative confirmed those plans.
One month until the @fifaworldcup kicks off. One month until an unforgettable celebration of football. We'll raise a Bud to that. 🍻 pic.twitter.com/bYJy8xnqjk
Soccer continues to gain ground in the U.S. Horizon Media in a recent report stated that the sport has now passed ice hockey as the nation’s fourth-most popular sport, and it is the second-most watched sport for Americans ages 12-24.
Soccer is also the most diverse fan base of any sport, according to Horizon; 40% of fans are people of color. And while 27% are Hispanic, “newer soccer fans are even younger, more evenly split on gender, and more diverse,” according to the report. Horizon’s advice: “While this is still a key moment to connect with Hispanic audiences in-culture and in-language, consider a polycultural approach to meet growing soccer-fan audiences where they are.”
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Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Puma are among the marketers already running ads.
Nielsen reports that 82% of soccer fans check social media while watching a match. So brands with smart, real-time digital marketing responses to gameplay have a decent chance to get noticed.
Horizon advises brands to shift their normal World Cup strategy, given that the new cold weather timing of the tourney will result in fewer outdoor viewing parties. “Find ways like social media streaming and influencers to facilitate virtual co-watching for fans who can’t be together,” the agency advises. That could also include the metaverse. Earlier this month FIFA and Roblox announced “FIFA World,” described as a “virtual environment that celebrates the power of football (soccer) and the rich history of its pinnacle events.” A promotional video reveals several sponsor integrations with Visa and Adidas.
Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo tops a list of the most influential players on Instagram published by Nielsen InfluenceScope. His nearly 472 million followers and 2.25% engagement rate equates to $3.6 million worth of average value for a branded post, according to Nelsen.
A post shared by Cristiano Ronaldo (@cristiano)
Ronaldo is followed by Argentina’s Lionel Messi, Brazil’s Neymar and France’s Kylian Mbappé. The list of “breakthrough stars,” compiled based on the social media growth surge, is led by teenager Gavi Páez of Spain. France tops Nielsen’s list of the most popular teams on Instagram. The U.S. does not crack the top 10.
But Horizon warns that, when it comes to the best World Cup stories, “there’s only so much we can predict,” recalling that in 2018 the buzziest moments included the underdog plights of Iceland and Croatia, as well as Peru’s first goal in 36 years.
In this article:
E.J. Schultz is the News Editor for Ad Age, overseeing breaking news and daily coverage. He also contributes reporting on the beverage, automotive and sports marketing industries. He is a former reporter for McClatchy newspapers, including the Fresno Bee, where he covered business and state government and politics.