Kicking off

Some weeks before the 2010 World Cup kicked off I read that Powerade were the Official Hydration Partner of the World Cup. It was at that point that I knew this was going to be a bad World Cup for England. You see England’s Official Sports Drink is Lucozade Sport – clearly our palettes were wrongly prepared.

Then the tournament started with a new ball from Official Partner, Adidas, which no England player had played with before. The Premier League’s official wacky ball partner is Nike. No wonder the Jabulani proved so difficult for us to control.

Then, Mahindra Satyam (what do you mean, who?) turn up as FIFA’s Official IT Services Provider. England’s Official IT Partner is, er… Maybe that’s what David Beckham was there to do.

Tongue-in-cheek comments, but no more than such ridiculous terminology deserves. But the terminology is not the limit of the problem in such sponsorship. Despite the intended implication that ‘partners’ are acting, almost philanthropically, in the best interests of football, I suspect that the structure of these relationships may even be having a significant negative effect on the game. It’s a case of the tail wagging the dog; the sort of thing that gives marketing a bad name.

Let’s take the Jabulani ball created for this tournament. Adidas would no doubt argue that they designed it so as to improve the quality of the game for players and fans. But the truth is they designed it so they could sell more balls. The World Cup didn’t need a new ball but it got one because, Adidas, in cahoots with FIFA, needed to find some way to achieve a return on the investment of their sponsorship. No doubt the original brief to the designers had the intention of producing a ball that would yield an extensive YouTube catalogue of spectacular goals, and had that happened I’m sure we would all let them enjoy their commercial gain. But the fact is it’s been clear for some time now that this ball does not work as intended – it’s worse for players and worse for fans – and in the best interests of football it should have been abandoned long before the tournament began. But I suspect that because of Adidas’ commercial relationship with FIFA that option could never be discussed. I wonder how different this tournament might have been with a different, more familiar ball instead of one that no one asked for and no one, except the sponsor, needs? 

And what about goal-line technology, such as would have spotted the one time that Frank Lampard did actually manage to squeeze the Jabulani under the crossbar? I wonder how much influence the sponsor line-up might have now that it’s inevitable that a foolproof system is introduced. There are two goal-line technologies currently in consideration – one is the Hawk Eye system, developed by a company that is owned by Siemens, and proven to work in cricket, tennis, and snooker; the other embeds a microchip in a ball, in a system developed by a collaboration of which Adidas is a part, around which some doubts still exist. As Siemens have no commercial arrangements with FIFA, I suspect the decision-making criteria may not be limited to which works best. Perhaps FIFA’s reluctance to adopt even a goal-line referee (after Thierry Henri’s antics in the play-off against Ireland) might be related to thoughts of commercial ‘partnership’ being put ahead of the good of the game.

Now, none of this is to say that I believe sponsorship to be a bad thing – the funds and the enthusiasm that it generates are clearly beneficial to the game. It’s also true that in many cases sponsors provide products or services for which there is a real need – I’m sure Mahindra Satyam are doing a fabulous job with IT. But sponsorship is at the back end of the marketing chain; it’s a blunt but effective communication tool, and that’s where it should stay. Marketing works when it identifies an audience’s need, creates products and services that satisfy it, then communicates and delivers the solution. Allowing sponsors to dictate the agenda of the game by inventing products or services so as to exploit their sponsorship, rather than the game’s true needs, is the wrong way round – the tail wagging the dog – and it’s time that this was stopped. 

Unless for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, someone comes up with a ball that when Rooney lets fly from 35 yards, is guaranteed to go in.

First published on The Crossed Cow, 6 July 2010.