November 24, 1998 marked dam-burst moment for the International Olympic Committee – the day when a report proving that the child of an IOC member was having their school fees paid by the organising committee of the Salt Lake winter Olympic Games was published.
What followed was a storm that rocked the Olympic world. Senior IOC member Marc Hodler went public with accusations that other members had taken bribes from Salt Lake City to secure their votes to host the Games and, ultimately, 10 members were expelled. They were dark days for an organisation that was, in other respects, on the up. Massive sponsorship and TV deals had transformed its finances, and the Olympic rings had become one of the most famous symbols in the world.
Just before it all hit the fan, Michael Payne, head of marketing at the IOC, commissioned a multi-national survey into how the public viewed the Olympic brand. Although it was overwhelmingly positive, IOC sponsors called for it to be repeated in 1999 to gauge the impact of the Salt Lake scandal on public perception.
Even today Payne says he was amazed by the results of the second survey, which was conducted in two waves. They were even more positive than before the scandal hit. They showed that positive attitudes towards the Olympics were increasing and that support for Olympic sponsors was solid and growing. Only 17 per cent of respondents in the second wave said that their support for sponsors had decreased. Not one sponsor quit.
In the present day, corruption issues in sport are a hot topic. Adidas and Nestlé have walked away from partnerships with the IAAF so far this year. Last year five Fifa sponsors decided not to renew deals, although none publically cited the corruption scandal.
The apparent criminality of middle-aged men in suits does not translate directly on the pitch
The interesting issue is the difference between the reaction of sponsors to the IOC, Fifa and IAAF situations. Payne and others are convinced that it’s down to the public being more discerning than they are given credit for. Salt Lake was about greedy people using their positions to feather their own nests. But as far as the average sports fan was concerned, it had no impact on what was really important – the spectacle of the Games.
With the IAAF, the situation is rather different. The men in suits are alleged to have presided over and covered up activities that did have an impact on the sport. Their attitude towards doping meant that it was impossible to separate individual or collective criminality from the sport itself, because one led to the other. While the IOC was able to separate the Games from their governance, that simply is not possible in athletics. It will take a long time for a new regime at the IAAF to win back the trust of the public and commercial community.
So what about Fifa? On the face of it, the situation looks more like that of the IOC. Yes, it was disturbing. But the apparent criminality does not translate directly to the pitch. Nobody ever loved football because of Fifa and nobody will ever stop watching it because of Fifa.
Perhaps the difference really is one of branding. Fifa has spent a decade or more promoting its own brand, aligning the name closely with its various competitions. Conversely, we don’t talk or write about the IOC Olympic Games; the property is suitably divorced from the organisers in the minds of the public.
Now that the Fifa brand has become toxic, they face the prospect of de-coupling gracefully or shutting down and starting again. That is the option that media baron Rupert Murdoch took when his UK newspaper the News of the World became mired in a phone-hacking scandal and advertisers began to walk away. He launched a new newspaper and, apparently, he can still pay the rent. The IAAF, on the other hand, appears to face a longer recovery because of the nature of its issues and the fact that the sport was already struggling to fulfil its potential in the modern world – something acknowledged by both candidates in last year’s presidential election.
The lesson seems to be that brands need to be seen to be supporting sports and not their governing bodies, and that they need to support sports that the public are not simply enthralled by but actually believe in. Athletics is currently neither loved nor widely believed-in and it is closely associated with its governing body. But does that mean it is untouchable? Perhaps there is an opportunity for a brand with corporate cojones to move into the space and announce it is proud to be helping athletics to reclaim its place at the top table. What wonderful PR it would be to be seen as part of the future of the sport and part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.