The ongoing FIFA World Cup™ is being criticized by some in the global North for “sportwashing” the reputation of Qatar. How do you judge the merits and flaws of this label to describe the state of international sports competitions?
I do not like the term “sportwashing” because it oversimplifies situations and since it is mainly used by the global North for countries in the global South hosting sports competitions. Rather than resorting to labels with ideological or cultural bias to generalize people, organizations, and countries, we should try to understand through dialogue who they actually are and what they are trying to do. The labels “global North” and “global South”, too, I use for the lack of more appropriate terms.
Having said this, it is true that sports competitions are and have always been inherently geopolitical. A historic example are the sports competitions organized by the British in their former Colonies to further their interests abroad. A more recent example illustrating how this is relevant to private actors as well is the Premier League being lobbied by the British government to allow the takeover of Newcastle United by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, with the Gulf states representing a key-source of investment in the United Kingdom after Brexit.
In the recent past, what have been the most important developments for sports organizations with globally distributed commercial interests?
Even though I said that the geopolitical quality of sports has not changed, sports organizations are facing a drastically different global environment than in the last century. The global economic and political shift that has taken place in the last 30 years has led to sports organizations and other brands taking interest in markets of the global South because of their fast-growing nature. Simultaneously, we find ourselves in a period of increasing polarization in international relations – above all, between the two major global powers in the United States and China. Also, governments and societies in the global North are setting higher value-related demands for companies operating abroad. This is partly due to social media and the individualism of many people in the liberalist global North, leading to them being very open about their disagreements with diverging values and cultures. In some places, these binary judgments lead to a diminishing willingness to engage in dialogue with others, which is a fundamental problem.
What are the implications of these developments for sports organizations?
This renders doing sports business on a global scale increasingly difficult and complex. Indeed, it can lead to brands being stuck between a rock and a hard place when they try to occupy the middle ground.
If a World Cup sponsor such as Adidas openly embraces specific values of the global North, it is going to antagonize the global South. However, if it accentuates the values of some cultures in the global South, e.g. in the form of Arab associations, it may upset people from the global North. If focusing too much on not offending anyone, it risks running bland activation campaigns and not being able to credibly show what values you are trying to uphold. If they get it right, there may be some purity and simplicity to just letting the football talk.
Hummel is another good example. In their mission statement, Hummel say that they “value their Danishness”. However, they also supply the handball federation from Iran and, given the current protests in Iran, Hummel has publicly not issued any statements about it. These brands run the risk of being accused of hypocrisy due to doing one thing in one part of the world and something different in another place.
If it is that difficult to occupy the middle grounds between countries of the global North and South, do you predict that many brands will just retrench back into their domestic markets?
I don’t think we can stereotype the responses or organizations in neither the global North nor the global South since they will differ in every country. For example, the popular response in Britain to the FIFA World Cup™ taking place in Qatar has been relatively muted compared to the response in Germany. Likewise, a small country relying on external alliances such as Qatar can hardly be compared to China. The former is forced to look outwards, while the latter is not.
Still, either organizations will deal with a more complex and riskier global commercial environment with all its interdependencies, or they will choose to retrench back to home markets to limit their risk exposure. Right now, a growing number chooses not to be associated with others with different values and to dip into national sentiments by using national signs and symbols.
From the point of view of sports organizations’ as well as for society, what will be needed for shaping a desirable future?
Sports organizations require geopolitical and cultural competence in manoeuvring through a challenging global environment. For example, it takes smart strategic decisions for guiding differentiated marketing communication campaigns in the context of polarization and looming backlash. Thinking deeply about how one’s own organization is interdependent with the rest of the world and integrating expert and outside perspectives in decision-making will become more important.
For society, I believe that rather than being overwhelmed by the world, we need leadership. In other topics such as climate change, we have proved that we can reach agreements on an international level. Why is there no similar platform to discuss the role of sports to contemporary life, its socioeconomic contribution, and its political role? To find answers to these questions people need to talk to each other. And, currently, there is no forum to do that.