How brands are approaching a winter World Cup in Qatar

With the tournament being competed in the build-up to Christmas and held in a country with a population of less than 3 million, sponsors are having to adapt
A man walks outside the Al-Thumama Stadium in Doha on November 8, 2022, ahead of the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup football tournament
A man walks outside the Al-Thumama Stadium in Doha

The 2022 Qatar World Cup is a World Cup of many firsts – it will be the first tournament to be held in the Middle East, the first to be competed in the winter and the first to be hosted by a majority-Muslim country.

The unique circumstances surrounding this year’s World Cup have presented sponsors with a number of challenges and opportunities. Issues surrounding Qatar’s record on human rights – particularly its criminalisation of homosexuality and treatment of migrant workers – have been well documented. We outlined the ways in which World Cup sponsors have approached these controversies here

But beyond this, one of the biggest challenges facing sponsors of the 2022 Qatar World Cup is  the size of the business opportunity in the host nation. Even when accounting for a predicted 1.2 million visitors, Qatar’s population of 2.9 million is dwarfed by that of the two previous World Cup hosts, Russia and Brazil, which have populations of 144 million and 214 million respectively.

Ricardo Fort, founder of Sport By Fort Consulting and former vice-president of global sports and entertainment partnerships at Coca-Cola, says: “Usually the host country is a very important element of any financial return for sponsors. Whenever the World Cup happens in a large country, the chances of getting a return on investment are much greater – we saw this with the World Cup’s in Brazil and in Russia, and likely will with the next one in North America.”

A total of $1.1bn (£960m) has been spent by sponsors in order to partner with FIFA for the Qatar World Cup. For companies such as Adidas, which spent a reported $800m on its 16-year partnership deal, or Chinese smartphone maker Vivo, which committed to a 15-year deal at the cost of $850m, securing a return on such significant outlays won’t be easy.

“Brands are having to work extra hard on their activations in other countries to make sure they compensate for the limited return of the host country,” Fort adds.

Likewise, Qatar’s rules around drinking alcohol will present some unique challenges for one of the lead World Cup 2022 sponsors AB InBev, owner of the Budweiser brand. It remains technically illegal to drink or be drunk while in public in the Muslim country. Drunk fans will be sent to “sober zones”, if they are too inebriated.

Although Qatar originally wanted the event to be alcohol-free, there will now be designated parts of stadiums and fan areas where alcohol can only be bought – but only after 6.30pm in the FIFA Fan Festival site. The rules around alcohol advertising will also make it difficult for AB InBev, which may have to limit promotions to only include its alcohol-free offering Budweiser Zero.

Late orders from the Qatari state have forced Budweiser to relocate its branded beer stands a week before the start of the tournament, as they were considered to be too prominent outside several stadiums.

“Budweiser is a World Cup partner but in terms of activation, I don’t think you’ll see much of that, if anything, in Qatar or the stadiums,” Conrad Wiacek, head of sport analysis and consulting at GlobalData. “We will likely see that activation spend being shifted to international marketing campaigns.”

Competing with Christmas

The timing of this year’s tournament presents another series of challenges and opportunities for the World Cup sponsors. “Brands would normally have a clear run at the World Cup when it’s held over the summer, without having to compete against too much else,” says Wiacek.

This year, the World Cup final will be held a week before Christmas, while in the US, it will be competing with viewers of the NFL and NBA. “It will be interesting to see how advertisers respond in those markets,” he adds.

Fort regards the timing of the tournament as an issue for any sponsor that sees some sort of seasonality in their product consumption. “For beverage companies like Coca-Cola and AB InBev it’s much better to have the World Cup held during the summer,” he says.

As the former Coca-Cola vice-president, Fort also notes the potential impact this will have on businesses’ Christmas advertising campaigns. “Coca-Cola of course has the added conflict of being a big advertiser during the festive season,” he adds. 

If these sponsors don’t have an advert with Santa playing football, I think they’ve missed a trick

Due to the size of the World Cup – which is predicted to reach a global TV audience of 5 billion people – advertising around the tournament “will always have priority over everything else”. “I’d be surprised if brands didn’t do something World Cup-related just to benefit their Christmas campaigns,” Fort adds. Of course, the task of balancing the two events will only be an issue in markets that celebrate Christmas.

Mike Wragg, APAC managing director at Nielsen Sports, claims that brands should use the timing as an opportunity to “engage and persuade consumers” at a point in the retial calendar when many will be considering buying. 

“Audiences are already thinking about their holiday spending and one of the biggest games of the opening round – USA vs England – is on Black Friday,” he says. “[It is] a big day for online and offline shopping in the US and other markets.” 

Wiacek is also anticipating that some creative advertisers may seek to include reference to the World Cup in their Christmas campaigns. He says: “If these sponsors don’t have an advert with Santa playing football, I think they’ve missed a trick.”

Preparations begin for 2026 tournament

Despite the Qatar World Cup not officially starting until 20 November, many brands will already have set their sights on the next tournament, being held in North America in 2026. 

Canada, the US and Mexico – who are co-hosting the event – are all “great markets for brands”, according to Fort, who claims demand for sponsorship deals is likely to start as soon as the final whistle is blown in Qatar.

“The challenge for the next World Cup is how FIFA is going to handle the number of partners and sponsors, because the interest is going to be so high,” he adds. “It will be difficult not to lose control and suddenly find itself with 100 brands promoting the same event, which would be bad for everyone.”

The only thing that could put a dampener on FIFA’s sponsorship plans for 2026 will be the viewing figures for the Qatar tournament. Many people have claimed that they will not watch the 2022 World Cup out of principle, because of the controversies surrounding the event.

“Sponsors will only change their plans if there is a lower than expected global audience for this World Cup,” Wiacek says. “Saudi Arabia is being linked with a bid for 2030 and there are a few large partnership contracts that are coming to an end around that time. If the audience drops for this tournament, there may be fears that it will happen again.”