Despite gloomy predictions in the press – and a lukewarm response from sponsors – football’s World Club Championship, which reaches its climax in Brazil this week, appears here to stay.
The sport’s governing body, Fifa, has invested heavily in its new baby and seems willing to do whatever is necessary to ensure long-term success.
The tournament’s many critics have labelled it an ill-conceived and unrepresentative contest, hastily cobbled together for political reasons. They argue that the World Club Championship was created by Fifa to improve relations with football federations outside Europe and South America – in Asia, Africa and Oceania – which have long campaigned to be included in the Tokyo InterContinental Cup, traditionally fought out between the best of Europe and South America. But these critics could be forced to eat their words if it establishes itself as a permanent fixture in the football calendar.
Fifa president Sepp Blatter wants to make the competition a biennial – or even annual – event and there is talk of expanding it to include up to 24 teams.
However, as the world’s biggest club, Manchester United, bows out of the inaugural championship, there are still question marks over its commercial viability.
As revealed in Marketing Week last week, Fifa was forced to slash the price of its sponsorship packages, from £600,000 to £350,000, to attract support from its regular “family” of sponsors. It now appears that Fifa’s 11th-hour appeal to its die-hard sponsors came after it had failed to drum up interest from other potential corporate backers.
ISL Worldwide, which is handling the sale of marketing rights, eventually signed seven sponsors – Budweiser, Coca-Cola, MasterCard, Fujifilm, McDonald’s, JVC and Hyundai – who contributed a total of £2.5m, only half of Fifa’s £5m target.
This has been dismissed in some quarters as understandable caution over the untried, and highly controversial, new championship. But senior figures in sports marketing believe it could be a sign of things to come.
One source says: “There is a view going round the industry that we are reaching the limit of what sponsors are prepared to pay. The good properties, such as the Champions’ League and the World Cup, which get extensive TV coverage, are still going to command premium prices.
“But because of digital and the extra choice that is available to viewers, the second-tier properties will have to be very watchable.
“Any event is going to find it tough. The World Club Championship is a hard one to justify. It is unproven. There is a danger it will be seen as just another championship.”
Another source adds: “The English market, in particular, is in danger of being over-supplied with football. Because the big clubs need to generate cash for shareholders they have to play as often as possible, but they need to be careful not to over-stretch the brand.
“Unless it quickly develops a credible track record, the Club Championship could be a tournament too far for English clubs.”
However, Tim Crowe, business development director of sports consultancy Karen Earl, believes the jury is still out. “Football is a major global sport and people will always want to watch the best teams play each other. There is a place for a global club competition, but Fifa and the international football bodies must standardise the worldwide football calendar.
“Critics were similarly dismissive of the Champions’ League when it relaunched in the early Nineties – but look at it now.”
Crowe adds: “Everyone recognises this inaugural event has been cobbled together. I don’t know why Fifa didn’t approach its family of sponsors first, instead of trying to sell the deals to other companies. It would have helped the event enormously if they’d been on board at the outset.”
He dismisses critics who say the competition will only survive if it is won by a big European club. “It’s easy to be Eurocentric. The other clubs in this year’s competition are huge in their respective markets and their power should not be underestimated.”
Early indications are that the competition has lured large TV audiences, with the first two Manchester United games attracting an estimated 41 and 38 per cent of all viewers. BBC Choice, the corporation’s cable and satellite channel, also had its largest audience to date, with 120,000 for the opening game of the tournament.
Fifa is foregoing a profit this year to invest in the future of the championship. It has sunk TV rights and sponsorship cash into a £17.5m prize fund, with another £8m to be divided among the various national and international member associations.
But Stephen Pearson, former commercial director of the Premier League and now commercial director of Arena 2000, believes Fifa has missed an opportunity to be more innovative.
He says: “Rather than giving away the sponsorship, Fifa could have sold it to a single headline backer, such as the Carling Premiership programme. It could also have tried ‘virtual advertising’. But the biggest problem has been the time-scale of the competition – it has been rushed through.”
Much of the criticism has centred on qualification for the event, with many observers questioning the fact that some clubs – such as Real Madrid, which qualified by winning the Toyota Cup – are not true champions.
Pearson adds: “Fifa must make qualification completely transparent.”
The World Club Championship clearly has the potential to be the jewel in world club football’s crown – and a major television draw. But much will depend on Fifa and international governing bodies’ ability to sort out the annual fixtures pile-up.
Additional reporting by Charles McKelvey