Tuesday, November 29, 2022

How can the World Cup in Qatar turn out to be a flop when football has never been so popular?

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Will Qatar’s World Cup become a media flop? How can this happen when the world has never been so connected and global interest in football is at an all-time high?

According to Fifa, the notoriously shady governing body of world football, there will be a record five billion people watching this World Cup in Qatar.

Time will tell if FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s inscrutable prediction proves correct, but the signs are that this tournament will be a media flop. How could this happen when the world has never been so connected and global interest in football is at an all-time high?

The answer, of course, lies with Fifa, which defied all logic in choosing Qatar as the host country. Before the competition even started, told Gary Lineker, face of BBC coverage I that he is “a bit uneasy” about presenting a “World Cup won through corruption”. Some promo that.

David Beckham, a gay icon, has been ridiculed as a “trained seal” for taking on an alleged £15million-a-year ambassadorial role in a country where homosexuality is illegal.

Dutch manager Louis van Gaal applauds fans boycotting event, saying ‘you’re right about that’ ITV pundit and society analyst Gary Neville has been accused of hypocrisy for agreeing to work for Qatar’s state broadcaster while promising to use the trip to ‘challenge’ human rights abuses.

But ITV wants him there. The commercial broadcaster desperately needs this World Cup to become a revenue generator, to stave off the cold winds of an advertising downturn and to fuel the impending launch of its ambitious new streaming service ITVX.

In a World Cup year, the advertising mogul Sir Martin Sorrell traditionally celebrates the approaching football jamboree as a major source of inspiration for the media and the economy as a whole.

But the advertising world is approaching Qatar 2022 with trepidation. “The ethical issues surrounding Qatar’s nomination as host and its human rights record are the reasons this World Cup is a faltering revenue driver,” said Grant Hunter, global executive creative director at Iris Worldwide.

“Brands are keeping their heads down, which is no surprise given the backlash sponsors and Beckham are facing on social media and beyond.”

The Q-word exudes so much toxicity that brands have all but erased the venue from World Cup ads.

Hyundai’s Goal of the Century campaign with Korean boy band BTS was set on a continent other than Gulf. Budweiser’s The World Is Yours To Take campaign featured Lionel Messi and Raheem Sterling leading a global army of fans – and a briefly seen Pride flag – onto the pitch. The tunnel setting acted as a turn signal for the location of the event.

The beer brand BrewDog launched an “anti-sponsorship” campaign of the so-called “World F’Cup” and criticized the selection of the host nations of Fifa: “First Russia, then Qatar. I can’t wait for North Korea.”

Language learning company Duolingo pulled off a dig at the tournament by sponsoring the ‘other Qatar’, an amateur Brazilian team called Qatar FC.

For media planners buying advertising space, the repositioning of the World Cup as a Q4 winter event means higher costs and a collision with Christmas campaigns. “Advertisers would have preferred a Summer World Cup as they crave stability and missed the sales spike driven by the feel-good summer associated with major sporting events,” said Kieren Mills, head of broadcast at Total Media.

Some agencies and brands are deciding that Qatar’s baggage – from homophobic laws to the deaths of migrant workers building stadiums – makes it easier to focus on mistletoe, wine and Black Friday, another key date on the promotional calendar that now coincides with England Group game with the United States this week.

Some will say that sport and politics should not mix and that classic World Cups have taken place under authoritarian regimes, such as Argentina in 1978 and the 2018 competitions in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

But as MKTG media agency Amir Singh told The Drum Media Summit, there has been a surge of activism around race, climate and other issues that brands cannot ignore. “We are in a very different world than when the tournament was held in Russia,” he said.

I love the world cup. I knelt in front of a black and white TV watching Gordon Banks save Pele’s header in 1970 and went to bed in tears as Germany’s Uwe Seeler knocked out England. I flew to South Africa in 2010 and to Brazil in 2014.

But Qatar 2022 feels very different. The media hype is muted. Some pubs in London, Birmingham, Leeds and Chester are refusing to show matches.

Qatar has spent £178 billion hosting this World Cup, ten times more than Russia did in 2018, according to the Alliance Fund Investment Trust. America claims it paid a heap of money to secure the tournament. But the cost to the media industry and the UK economy of squandering this four-year money-making opportunity amounts to a missed open-ended.

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