Some sports, like football (soccer), have tens of millions of fans worldwide. Some sports, like solo synchronized swimming (dropped from the Olympics in 1992), not so many. But even the most obscure sports have their champions, their purists, their devotees and their rabid fans. On the other hand, if you don’t like a particular sport, it’s easy to just ignore it and concentrate on the ones you do like or love. Nobody devotes much time to denigrating any single sport. I don’t think pole vault or dressage have any haters. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for sports governing organizations. Powerhouse brands like the NFL and FIFA come to mind as cozy little billionaire’s clubs, rife with cronyism, mismanagement, neglect and outright criminal corruption. But, of course, all this comes to mind this week because the master branders of the IOC and the Olympic Games have come to Rio de Janeiro.
The National Football League (NFL) is the organizing body for professional (American) football in the US. In their actions, the team owners who comprise the league behave very much like a criminal cabal. They enjoy a total monopoly on the sport, dividing up team revenue and TV broadcasting rights just like mafia crime families divvy up different rackets and territories among themselves. They extort local communities by threatening to relocate teams. They recognize that they all profit most when they profit together. Meanwhile, they’ve shown a remarkable slack style of management. They’re constantly surprised when some of their players engage in brutal acts of violence and criminal activity off the field. They still have not devised any organized means of dealing with these transgressions. The result is inconsistent penalties or illogical fines levied against the offending players – seemingly, doled out on a whim. The NFL was also last to learn, apparently, that their sport induces Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), ignoring the evidence, for as long as possible, that their players, already the lowest-paid of major-sport American athletes, are being slowly killed by the very game they are paid to play. The NFL, no surprise here, promises nothing but more study.
FIFA is a modest, little non-profit organization that just happens to have a billion-dollar cash reserve. It is a notoriously rapacious group that dangles World Cups before aspiring host cities like crack before junkies. They’ve barely bothered to disguise the fact that bribery is part and parcel of their methodology. To host the World Cup, you have to grease the palms of all of FIFA’s senior officers, and that’s just the opening ante. FIFA will want to rewrite your tax laws, ensuring themselves a tax-free holiday while in your country. FIFA will rewrite other of your laws to make them more acceptable to FIFA sponsors. FIFA will insist you build expensive new facilities, even if they’ll never get used again. And, when the World Cup is over, FIFA will leave your country will all the money made from sponsorships and TV broadcasts. All of it. Host countries are left with massive debt and angry citizens. Now, FIFA has awarded the 2018 World Cup to Quatar, where the on-field temperature is projected to average 120° degrees Fahrenheit and where foreign-born workers, held in-country against their will, are dying at the rate of two every three days, in the effort to build the FIFA-required stadiums. Earlier this year, the US Justice Department raided a FIFA convention, arresting many commissioners and senior staffers. Major sponsors, like Adidas and Budweiser, threatened to leave, causing FIFA President Sepp Blatter’s head to finally roll. But it will it be enough to save FIFA?
The IOC seems to have modeled its business plan on FIFA. This year, they bagged Rio de Janeiro, as the World Cup did in 2014. Unfortunately, poor Brazil committed to the Games long before they learned what a disastrous economic result ensues from hosting these oversized events. The lead time itself can condemn a country. Brazil was enjoying an economic boom when it was awarded these two sporting extravaganzas. But, by the time the events actually rolled around, they country was mired in a record-setting recession. The last thing Brazil needed was having to fund, first the World Cup, and then the Olympics. Back in 2009, when they were awarding the 2016 Games, anyone could see that Rio was unprepared and, likely, to never be prepared. Everyone knew they weren’t really up to spending $4 billion to clean up the sewage in Guanabara Bay. (They’ve spent less than 5% of that and the water there is still filthy.) So why give the Games to Rio? Greed. Pure and simple. The IOC imagined the television ratings that would come from shots of Ipanema Beach with Sugarloaf Mountain and Christo Redentor in the background. When you can pull in broadcast fees like that, why not put the health of the world’s best athletes, the ones we’re all supposed to be celebrating, at risk? Why not leave the host country in economic ruin? This summer, more and more scandals are emerging: the doping Russian team, the infamous Rule 40, etc. Where does it end before someone stands up and says, “Enough!”?
One could go on, ad infinitum, about how the NFL, FIFA and the IOC brands are at odds with the values of their own markets. But those are hardly the only sports governing bodies that abuse the power they wield. There’s plenty of corruption in other organizations. The real question is, why do we put up with it? Because we love watching sports at the highest level, that’s why. Americans are addicted to the NFL and the NFL treats us like the dependents we are. In most parts of the world, football (soccer) is treated as a religion. Until he was forced to step down, Sepp Blatter was its pope. The IOC runs roughshod over athletes and hosts alike because there’s no one to stop them. To rein in the NFL, American cities will have to reclaim ownership of their teams’ brand identities, as Cleveland did. They will have to refuse to pony up public money for stadiums, as Los Angeles did. It took the law enforcement efforts of the US, a country that cares little for FIFA’s product, to step in and finally begin the clean-up of the FIFA brand. It may require an invading intergalactic force to restore the IOC brand to something akin to the ideal it pretends to be.
Or we could all just stop watching these organizations until they rehabilitate their brands … Nah.
Best Branding Reads – Week of August 8, 2016
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The C-Suite: Brendan McNamara, Executive VP of Dream Hotel Group
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