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Seeking Money and Friends, FIFA Finds Plenty of Each in China

  • Crisis froze sponsorship talks for months: FIFA marketing head
  • Xi’s soccer mandate led companies to pour money into the sport

China’s soccer boom couldn’t have come at a better time for FIFA.

After vocal criticism from top U.S. and European sponsors, FIFA has found new friends – and financial support – in China. Prominent business leaders, eager to participate in President Xi Jinping’s national campaign to make China a soccer power, have embraced the sport’s governing body, undeterred by the crisis that just last week brought new revelations of corruption and self-dealing.

Since the first wave of soccer-related arrests more than a year ago, FIFA has added only two top-tier sponsors, both Chinese companies. A unit of Alibaba Group became the title sponsor of the Club World Cup in December 2015. Three months later, Dalian Wanda Group Co. became a FIFA sponsor at the highest level, paying $150 million per four-year World Cup cycle to put its name alongside Coca-Cola Co. and Adidas AG.

FIFA still wants to add another pair of nine-figure partners, and FIFA’s marketing director Thierry Weil said those could also go to Asian companies, possibly by the end of the summer. Four World Cup sponsorships, which cost less, are also available.

Weil’s department couldn’t do much after indictments and investigations against several top FIFA leaders created a near meltdown at the organization. Meanwhile, the campaign to replace ousted president Sepp Blatter unfolded with the histrionics of a telenovela.

“This was quite a strange year for us,” Weil said. “It would have been hard for any company to continue. So we put certain discussions on ice, and stopped other discussions.”

Meanwhile, FIFA’s western sponsors, led by Coke and Adidas, made loud, public demands for changes to global soccer’s leadership and its governance processes. Corporate partners published open letters to the organization in December and shortly after appeared in British Parliament, where they were questioned about their own complicity in FIFA’s mess.

“The sponsors have definitely not been happy,” Weil said. “They put a lot of pressure on us, and in that way helped to achieve what FIFA has achieved.”

Shortly after Gianni Infantino was elected FIFA president at the end of February, he traveled to the U.S. to assuage the partners. Still, there has been little talk of adding a new American or European company as a sponsor.

“It’s more of a challenge for businesses based in the traditional Western markets, where media scrutiny and public expectation and values are very different from other places,” said Nathan Homer, head of global sponsorship at Barclays Plc.

Those “other places” include China. Following President Xi’s direction, there has been a rush of spending on the sport domestically and abroad. For example, in the last year Chinese retail company Suning Holdings Group Co. bought the Chinese media rights for La Liga games, paid a record 50 million euro transfer fee to bring star Brazilian midfielder Alex Teixeira to Jiangsu Suning Football Club, and on Monday announced that it is buying 70 percent of Italian club Inter Milan.

Wanda, which owns a stake in Champions League runner-up Atlético Madrid, also bought Swiss sports marketing agency run by former FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s nephew in February, 2015. The company, Infront, brokered Wanda’s FIFA recent sponsorship, only to have the deal put on hold for months while the organization retrenched.

In March, FIFA and Wanda used a low-key press conference at the soccer body’s glass and steel Zurich headquarters to announce the sponsorship. No one from Wanda participated, even though founder Wang Jianlin was on-site.

Weil said the sponsorship was critical as much for its symbolic value as for its revenue. “It’s an important deal, the first company willing to come out and say I’m now partnering with FIFA after the crisis,” he said

— With assistance by Tariq Panja

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