Copa America to Emerge From FIFA Scandal Seeking New Partners

  • Concacaf said to join Conmebol in recovering media rights
  • Sports marketing companies may line up after being frozen out

The soccer event at the heart of FIFA’s corruption scandal is open for business -- legitimate business.

The Copa America Centenario, featuring 16 national teams from North and South America, was meant to celebrate the 100th anniversary of soccer’s oldest regional tournament. Instead, it devolved into a maelstrom of graft as U.S. authorities alleged soccer leaders sold the rights to sports marketer Datisa for millions of dollars in bribes.

Now, the two organizations responsible for the June 2016 competition have recovered those rights and will seek new bids as early as next week, a person familiar with the matter said. U.S. companies which had previously been excluded will be free to take part, said the person, who requested anonymity because the matter isn’t public.

Conmebol, the regional body responsible for soccer in South America, announced Friday it had recovered its sponsorship and television rights for the tournament. Concacaf, the group responsible for the game in North and Central America, is set to make the same announcement as soon as Tuesday evening, said the person.

U.S. Expansion

At a Miami news conference last year, leaders of the two bodies said they would expand South American soccer’s most prestigious tournament and play in the U.S. for the first time. The competition is to feature teams from Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and the U.S., and showcase stars such as Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Brazil’s Neymar.

The rush to profit from the event was at the heart of a U.S. grand jury indictment unsealed in May. Fourteen people were charged, including Jeffrey Webb, the ex-president of Concacaf, former leaders of South American soccer and sports marketing executives from the U.S., Brazil and Argentina. Webb pleaded not guilty.

“These individuals and organizations engaged in bribery to decide who would televise games, where the games would be held, and who would run the organization overseeing organized soccer worldwide,” U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said, citing the 2016 Copa America Centenario.

In Doubt

Since the charges were made public, the tournament had been in doubt because of legal wrangling over sponsorship and television rights. Several meetings of Conmebol and Concacaf in recent weeks, including a summit in Mexico City, sought to break the deadlock. With the rights now secured, officials plan to start a short tender process for broadcast and sponsorship sales, the person said.

Given the negative press surrounding the Copa America, and the short time-frame needed to complete new contracts, it’s unlikely organizers will be able to receive an upfront guarantee, said the person. Instead, bidders will probably offer a split.

A spokesman for Concacaf declined to comment, while Conmebol President Juan Angel Napout didn’t reply to an e-mail seeking comment.

Previous Deal

Under the previous sponsorship deal, Datisa agreed to pay $110 million in bribes to soccer leaders for four editions of the Copa America through 2023, including the special event in the U.S., federal prosecutors said. Soccer officials allegedly guaranteed revenues of $352 million. According to the Justice Department, some $40 million in bribes was paid by the time the scheme came to light.

One of the founders of Datisa, Jose Hawilla, was the owner of Brazilian sports marketing company Traffic Sports. He told prosecutors $20 million was paid at the signing of the 2013 contract, and that four more $20 million payments followed. Hawilla pleaded guilty, agreed to forfeit $151 million and cooperated with U.S. prosecutors by wearing a hidden recording device.

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