According to Fifa, the notoriously dodgy governing body of world football, there will be a record five billion people watching this World Cup in Qatar.
Time will tell if that unfathomable prediction by Fifa’s president, Gianni Infantino, proves correct, but the signs are that this tournament will be a media flop. How could that happen when the world has never been so well-connected and global interest in football is at an all-time high?
The answer, of course, lies with Fifa, which defied all logic to select Qatar as host nation. Before the competition even started, Gary Lineker, face of the BBC’s coverage, told i that he feels “a little queasy” about presenting a World Cup “won by corruption”. Some promo that.
David Beckham, a gay icon, has been derided as a “trained seal” for taking a reported £15m-a-year ambassadorial role in a land where homosexuality is illegal.
Dutch manager, Louis van Gaal, applauds fans who are boycotting the event, saying “they are right to do that”. ITV pundit and societal analyst Gary Neville is accused of hypocrisy for agreeing to do work for Qatar’s state broadcaster while promising to use the trip to “challenge” human rights failings.
But ITV wants him there. The commercial broadcaster desperately needs this World Cup to be a money-spinner to fend off the cold winds of an advertising downturn and to propel the imminent 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 stimulant for media and the economy as a whole.
But the advertising world is approaching Qatar 2022 with trepidation. “The ethical issues surrounding Qatar’s appointment as host and their human rights records are why this World Cup is a floundering revenue driver,” says Grant Hunter, global executive creative director at Iris Worldwide.
“Brands are keeping their heads down, which comes as no surprise when you see the backlash sponsors and Beckham are facing across social media and beyond.”
The Q-word is perceived as radiating so much toxicity that brands are all but eliminating the venue from World Cup ads.
Hyundai’s Goal of the Century campaign, starring Korean boy band BTS, was set a continent away from the 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 – towards the pitch. The tunnel setting acted as blinkers to the event’s location.
Beer brand BrewDog launched an “anti-sponsorship” campaign of what it called the “World F’Cup”, criticising Fifa’s choice of host nations: “First Russia, Then Qatar. Can’t wait for North Korea.”
The language-learning company Duolingo took a side-swipe at the tournament by sponsoring the “other Qatar”, a Brazilian amateur team called Qatar FC.
For media planners who buy advertising space the repositioning of the World Cup as a Q4 winter event means higher costs and a clash with Christmas campaigns. “Advertisers would have preferred a summer World Cup as they crave stability and have missed the sales peak driven by the feel-good summer associated with big sporting events,” says 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 in stadium construction – means it is easier to focus on mistletoe, wine and Black Friday, another crucial date in the advertising calendar which now coincides with England’s crunch group game with the United States this week.
Some will say sport and politics should no…