Visa’s head of marketing for Europe, Adrian Farina, has credited Uefa’s decision to unbundle the sponsorship rights for its men’s and women’s tournaments, saying that it provided the ‘trigger’ for the brand to sign a seven-year sponsorship deal with the governing body.
The payment services brand became the first ever dedicated partner of Uefa women’s football competitions after Uefa decided to position them as standalone events, separate from male competitions.
As reported by SportBusiness Sponsorship, the brand is paying an average of more than €2.5m ($2.8m) per season to be the main sponsor of Uefa’s Women’s Euros, Women’s Champions League, U17 and U19 Championships and Women’s Futsal Euro.
“In a way, the decision to unbundle sparked a different way of thinking for us,” Farina tells SportBusiness. “Clearly, there was no monetary or economic reason [to do so] because it’s not that you’re spinning something out because it’s worth so much money.
“That made us made us realise that Uefa was serious about treating women’s football in a way that would allow the sport to achieve its fullest potential, and no longer just as an afterthought.”
Farina says Visa is not looking for the same return on investment from the deal as it would from a traditional sponsorship and that it will factor in social impact when gauging its success. The brand’s commitment to support grassroots women’s football and build acceptance for female footballers also provides a ‘good analogy or metaphor’ for the company’s own message about the widespread acceptance of its payment services.
“If you do an evaluation just based on current eyeballs or attendance to matches, the business case [for sponsoring women’s football] is not as strong. For us, it was more about how that matched our own purpose as a company to drive positive acceptance to drive universal acceptance, inclusion, female empowerment,” he says. “If you see a brand that’s so committed to women’s football, you feel a brand that values diversity that values empowerment, that values inclusion.”
Over and above these objectives, Visa uses sports sponsorship to support the businesses of its banking and retail partners which, in turn, increases the use of its payment services.
“Lloyds Bank, a big client of ours here, can then run a promotion for their customers, or issue a card that has a special, limited-edition design with a World Cup or Olympic [logo], and that helps them drive their business,” says Farina. “[French retailer] Carrefour can do a big promotion that if you do your grocery shopping with them and pay with Visa, you can win a trip to the next Olympics or World Cup, so it helps our clients drive their business, which also benefits Visa of course.”
To supplement its sponsorship of Uefa, Visa has signed a roster of well-known European female footballers to its ‘Team Visa’ ambassador programme. Originally created to give aspiring Olympic athletes the support they need to pursue their goals, the programme has been expanded to help female footballers. At a specially convened event at Visa’s headquarters in London featuring all of these female ambassadors, Farina spoke of how the brand had focused its media spend on promoting women’s football and is teaching social media skills to its Team Visa athletes to amplify their stories.
To bundle or not to bundle?
In addition to its sponsorship of Uefa women’s football, Visa is a Fifa Worldwide Partner. The sponsorship rights to all Fifa competitions are packaged together meaning brands in the top tier of the global governing body’s sponsorship programme are granted the rights to all of Fifa Men’s and Women’s competitions by default.
Fifa has so far resisted unbundling the rights, although its outgoing chief commercial officer Philippe Le Floc’h recently told SportBusiness it will consider doing so after the 2019-22 rights cycle. Farina does believe such a move is necessary to bridge the differences between the men’s and women’s game. He references the fact that Visa committed to spend an equal sum activating its sponsorship rights to this year’s Fifa Women’s World Cup as it did for last year’s men’s World Cup in Russia as evidence that the bundling of the rights is not causing it to treat women’s football any differently to the men’s game.
“We are already involved,” he says. “If you look at what we’ve done, we don’t need that. We didn’t need them to do anything different for us to invest at a level that was unprecedented.”
Uefa Women’s Champions League
It has been speculated that part of the appeal of Uefa’s unbundled sponsorship programme is that it includes the rights to the Women’s Champions League, thereby giving Visa the opportunity to dilute rival payment brand Mastercard’s sponsorship of the men’s event. But Farina denies this had any influence on the decision to sponsor Uefa.
“They had these rights before us and they’ve never done anything,” he says. “So that tells us more about what they stand for than any strategy, any tactic, to muddy the waters as you say.”
He reiterates that Visa is less interested in gaining a return on investment from its association with the Uefa Women’s Champions League than it is in being seen to help the development of the competition and women’s football overall.
Team Visa ambassador and Linköpings FC and Sweden forward Kosovare Asllani said the brand had held discussion with female footballers about how it could use its influence with Uefa to improve the quality of the Women’s Champions League, which she said suffers from organisational issues.
“We want to have more of the top teams from England and France,” she said. “And we want to play with one ball. One week we play with one ball and then you go over to Sweden and play with another.”
Farina says the competition has suffered from the fact that the media and sponsorship rights to matches up to and including the semi-finals are sold directly by the competing clubs with central sales only applying for the final.
“I think the fact that it’s decentralised up to a certain level makes it a bit more difficult to attain the development of the tournament,” he says. “Maybe what makes it a bit more difficult is to drive that consistency in the tournament, the quality of the tournament, in the production, even on TV.”
Fifa Women’s World Cup
No such organisational problems existed with this year’s Fifa Women’s World Cup – an event that Farina says delivered eyeballs, a sense of brand purpose and employee engagement for Visa.
“Our share of voice during the Women’s World Cup was extraordinary,” he says. “We’ve sponsored the biggest sports on earth: the NFL in North America, the Fifa men’s World Cup, the Olympics. We’ve never had the level of positive reactions from our employees when we announced and when we started doing our campaign for the Women’s World Cup.”
Farina says Visa wants to build the Uefa European Women’s Championship in England into an even bigger event than this year’s World Cup in France. Next year, however, he says the brand’s focus will be on the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
“As Visa we’re privileged to think about the biggest event on earth every year,” he says. “A year ago, it was the Men’s World Cup in Russia – we sponsored that. This summer it was a Women’s World Cup in France, we sponsor that. Next summer is the Tokyo Olympics, we are there. The following summer, it’s the Women’s Euros.”
Asked if athlete activism and the dilution of the International Olympic Committee’s Rule 40 marketing restrictions has damaged the value of Visa’s TOP partnership, Farina gives his support to the organisation’s attempts to protect the exclusivity of the programme.
“Of course, we like to be protected as a TOP sponsor because we invest a lot. And that investment goes to support the sport, goes to develop into the Olympic federations around the world to stage the games to the Paralympics, so we like that the property holder protects us.
“It’s an evolving world with social media, et cetera, so there are always some nuances or grey areas, but of course we like it when we see the IOC, Fifa or Uefa truly protecting the rights holders.”