Fifa Club World faces sponsorship threat

Fifa had to put pressure on Manchester Utd to enter its inaugural Club World Championships. Will sponsors need the same treatment?

The Copa America football tournament opened in Paraguay last week. It is South America’s equivalent of the European Championship, featuring some of the best international teams in the world, including Brazil and Argentina.

But among these footballing giants one name stands out on the fixture list: Japan. It is not that the South Americans have laid some ancient imperial claim to the home of consumer electronics, rather that inviting the Japanese team was seen as a very modern solution to an age-old problem – a shortage of cash.

The organisers hope to boost financial backing for this tournament, which struggles to pay its way in an era when competition for sponsorship and TV rights money has never been so intense.

All of which raises the question: do we need the newly-hatched Fifa Club World Championship? And, if so, will it be able to attract any sponsors?

The answer, according to Fifa, world football’s governing body, is yes. The championship, brainchild of president Sepp Blatter, will have its “inaugural” tournament in Brazil in January.

Yet so far there are no sponsors, no TV rights have been sold and organisers have had to resort to strong-arm tactics to get Manchester United, the biggest club in the world, to compete. This new championship is not dissimilar to a pre-season friendly tournament, and appears contrived.

When the French national team won the World Cup last year, the preceding qualifying competition involved more than 100 countries. By contrast, for the World Club Championship, each of Fifa’s six confederations – Asia, Africa, Australasia, Europe, North and South America – will invite the top team from their region. These six will be joined by the host nation’s champions, in this case the Brazilian Corinthians, and the winner of the Intercontinental Cup to create an eight-team event.

Consultant Stephen Pearson, former commercial director of England’s Premier League, says: “One of the key problems is that the competition is only six months away. Sponsorship packages for Euro 2000, which is an established tournament, are still being sold, a process that started two years ago.

“It [Fifa] may approach existing sponsors for Euro 2000 and the 2002 World Cup and, for a nominal fee, throw in the chance to sponsor the club championship.

“But this is coming at a time when rights fees are escalating, especially on the sponsorship side, and some sponsors are turning their backs on events. Properties are being created which are too expensive for some companies to get involved in.”

To underline the point Canon, Snickers and Opel – all headline sponsors of Euro 96 in England – dropped their option to sponsor Euro 2000.

None of the experts Marketing Week spoke to could put a sponsorship value on the World Club Championship. Fifa says it has sent out TV rights tenders but, realistically, only the European and Asian markets are likely to have both the money and interest to make the event a commercial success.

Sports marketing agency ISL, which is selling sponsorship and TV rights packages for both Euro 2000 and the 2002 World Cup, is expected to handle negotiations for the club championship. It makes leaning on existing commercial partners a more obvious option.

Club sponsors – such as Sharp and Pepsi in the case of Manchester United – may also be approached.

These are among the options being considered by Fifa’s executive committee, meeting in Los Angeles this week.

“Both aspects [sponsorship and TV rights] are under negotiation,” says Fifa spokesman Andreas Herren. “It is my understanding that now that more teams are known, these negotiations will be speeded up. It is creating a playing opportunity that you will not find anywhere else – it is an event with its own merit.”

Herren is unable to give any information on the cost of hosting the event, which will probably be picked up by the local organising committee in Brazil, or income targets for sponsorship and TV rights – or even the winner’s prize money.

Fifa is understood to be planning to stage the event every two years. Unless it changes the timing, this means it will clash with every European Championship and World Cup year, which will concern sponsors of those events.

“It is by invitation only – a sign that it is not a true event,” says football consultant Tim Jenkins, former head of football finance at IMG. “It [the World Club Championship] does not strike me as a long-term prospect, but then some European teams stayed out of European competition for a long time in the belief that it wasn’t serious. And look at it now.”

It is probably a Euro-centric view, but Jenkins has a point. “Come mid-January, who will want to watch this tournament when there is already Premier League action, the FA Cup, Italian football on Channel 4 and the Spanish league available,” he says.

That presumably will be one of the first questions potential sponsors and broadcasters will be asking.

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