World Cup rivalries: Could they hurt sponsorships?

Dr Vassilis Dalakas

Posted: June 14, 2014

The significance of the World Cup is evident, among many ways, through the sponsorship revenues it generates for FIFA, close to $1.5 billion for 2014.  Additionally, each individual participating national team does its own deals and has its own sponsors.  Being the top international event for the world’s most popular sport, its appeal to sponsors is not surprising.

While sponsoring companies are driven by a variety of business objectives in pursuing a partnership, overall, the concept of liking transfer can explain the basic motivation for establishing such partnerships.  When fans have strong attachment to a certain sports property, aligning a brand with that property, is likely to elicit similarly positive responses from the fans to the brand, a phenomenon that sponsorship research has supported through several studies.

However, in the past few years research has shown that in addition to positive responses to sponsors from fans of the sponsored property, there may also be negative responses toward sponsors by fans of the sponsored property’s rivals.  In fact, I remember as a teenager growing up in Greece in the late ‘80s, how I would make a point not using Phillips Tracer products, because at the time it was the naming sponsor of an Italian basketball team that was a major rival of my Greek favorite basketball team.

About ten years ago, in a study with Aron Levin, we found evidence of the negative responses to sponsors of rivals with American fans of NASCAR racing.  More recently, Lars Bergkvist found similar tendencies with Swedish football fans where fans of the Stockholm team AIK transferred their dislike for rival Hammarby to its sponsor, the beer brand Falcon.

Making things even more interesting, was the finding of a very recent study I conducted with Coleen Bee where we found evidence of this pattern even when implied information about product quality for the sponsor’s product was provided.  Die-hard fans would like their sponsor’s products even when the implied product quality wasn’t high and they would dislike sponsors of their rivals even when the implied product quality was high.

Of course this raises important questions about whether all these negative responses may cancel out the positive and, if so, is the sponsorship really worth it.  This is technically even more of an issue in the context of the World Cup where rivalries and dislike for teams is not just sport-related but may also be a result of historical or other conflicts among countries over many years.  Thus, the animosity towards a rival’s sponsor can become even more intense.

However, here is why this may not really be as big of a problem with the World Cup sponsors.  When national teams are sponsored by a company from their own country, there is not much of a risk for that sponsor.  They can reap the benefits of native fans’ passion for their team and not worry about whatever potential animosity from rival fans because these fans were never part of their target market in the first place.  For example, Banco De Chile, sponsor of the Chilean national team, has been running an emotional commercial with survivors from the Chilean mining strategy showing passionate support for the Chilean team; all fans outside Chile that may root against it are then likely to not like Banco De Chile, but given that they are elsewhere and not likely to use that bank for their banking needs anyway, it is not really an issue.

In some cases though, the sponsor may be a company that is multinational and operates in multiple countries, including ones that are rivals of the sponsored national team.  For example, McDonald’s ran spots before Euro 2012 taking sides in the Netherlands vs. Germany rivalry (where the “winners” were the ones who’d end up in McDonald’s).  Similarly, prior to the playoff qualifying games between Sweden and Portugal (with a spot in the finals in Brazil being at stake), Pepsi in Sweden showed its support for the Swedish team by running ads with a Ronaldo voodoo doll wishing harm to him.  Clearly, in such cases, the sponsor has to be more cautious about taking sides and should downplay support to a specific team when they have target consumers in a rival country.

The way that sponsorships have become such a big part of major sport events, including the World Cup, it is inevitable that matches are not just pitting countries against each other but their sponsoring brands as well.  Which means if Germany ends up winning this World Cup (as EA Sports predicted), expect sales of Mercedes to drop in all the countries that Germany beats on its path…

About Dr Vassilis Dalakas

Dr Vassilis Dalakas is a professor at Cal State University San Marcos and visiting professor at the San Diego State University Sports MBA. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Oregon, home of the James Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. He currently serves on the editorial review board of Sport Marketing Quarterly and the Journal of Sport Management and also on the advisory board for the African Sports Business Association.