Betting on football: a tough call for businesses

After a controversial 2022 World Cup, small and large brands alike had to make a careful decision to either celebrate the game or sit this one out on the bench.
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An estimated 5 billion people tuned into the 2022 World Cup. That kind of unrivaled audience has typically created great opportunities for businesses, whether it's fully booked bars, selling one-off concept kits or just putting out a football-related ad.

But last year's host country, Qatar, has come under scrutiny for its mistreatment of migrant workers and its stance on LGBTQ+ and women's rights. Brands had to balance answering to a progressive customer base with the enormous commercial opportunity that this tournament presented. Meanwhile, consumers – half of whom say they respect brands that speak out against the World Cup – have been quick to sniff out those sending mixed messages (like beer company BrewDog, which launched an anti-World Cup advertising campaign… all the while continuing to show the tournament at its venues and distributing its beer in Qatar).

The situation puts small businesses – who could particularly use extra revenue, given the current economic challenges, but who can't take the same risks as multinationals – in a difficult place: is it possible to address the controversy without risking losing business or isolating customers?

Taking the penalty

Black Lines is a bottled cocktail brand that aligned itself with football (read: soccer) from early on, as it realized most brands were ignoring a wider audience. ‘All of the ads that were out in the world were very much beer-brand-focused – portraying a certain kind of aged man enjoying football with a beer – when it's not representative of everyone,’ says marketing manager Tara Mullally.

Black Lines doubled down on its belief in inclusivity during the women's Euros tournament last summer, even releasing a special gin cocktail named after England's team. So, when it came to the World Cup in Qatar, there was a dilemma: big football events had boosted business in the past, but this tournament didn't align with what drew the brand to the sport in the first place. Was it worth it to say anything at all? ‘We've been so vocal about football in the past, it'd feel really hypocritical for us not to say something when we really do believe that football should be for everyone,’ says Tara.

The team got together and created an Instagram post that shared their frustrations about the tournament, as well as posting Stories sharing informational links for followers to educate themselves on the issues. While there's been some heated feedback, overwhelmingly the response has been positive. ‘I do think that everyone respects when a brand has – even more than a personality – an ethos that they believe in. I think that builds relationships with our audience more because they see what we care about and what we stand for,’ Tara says.

Focusing off the pitch

For businesses like Amy Drucquer's, it's a bit more complex. She's the co-founder of This Fan Girl, a platform for female football fans that's also done campaign work with big companies such as Nike and Sony Music. It's one of a growing number of brands that are focused on football's expanding audience, so it'd be difficult for it to ignore the sport's biggest stage – and, from surveying her community earlier in the year, Amy estimated that around 75% of her audience would be watching. ‘I just wanted to work on the things that we potentially could change, set against the reality of the fact that it is happening,’ she says.

Another oddity of last year's World Cup was that it was held in November and December to avoid the hottest months of the year in Qatar. But, for big football fan bases in Europe (and parts of North America), that meant the games ended in darkness, posing a safety concern, on top of the often unfriendly and alcohol-filled environment that accompanies watching games at bars.

With this in mind, This Fan Girl put together a charter for pubs – 10 detailed steps on what to do to make game environments more welcoming – and launched a pub finder featuring businesses who'd signed up to follow these recommendations. ‘If you walk down any high street, football is everywhere and that's not going anywhere,’ she says. ‘So, it's about turning the light on the fact that the experience could be better and doing what we can in the meantime.’

A version of this article was published in the Courier Weekly newsletter. For more insights, analysis and inspiration, sign up here.

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