Emirates Airline speaks out on Fifa's Blatter row

As Emirates Airline comments on the latest controversy to rock Fifa, analysts say the company may be right to consider its sponsorship deal with the footballing organisation.

Sepp Blatter, the Fifa president, has made some questionable comments on racism recently.
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The growing controversy surrounding Fifa threatens to damage the brand image of Emirates Airline, analysts say, as signs grow the group may review its sponsorship of the football organisation.

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Recent questionable comments on racism from Sepp Blatter, the president of football's international governing body, combined with corruption scandals, have fuelled concerns about the rationale of the sponsorship.

"Emirates completely abhors racism and supports Fifa's own fair-play initiative and commitment to abolishing all forms of discrimination in football," Emirates said yesterday in a statement. "Emirates continues to closely watch developments within Fifa. However, we have no role in the management of the organisation."

Speaking this month about corruption scandals involving Fifa, Boutros Boutros, the Emirates senior vice president of corporate communciations, told Australian media: "We are seriously thinking about not renewing our partnership with Fifa beyond 2014. We don't get into politics, but we believe the situation with Fifa went beyond an internal problem and became much bigger."

Yesterday's statement followed an apology on the BBC by Mr Blatter, who insisted his "unfortunate" remarks had been "misunderstood".

He also vowed to stay in Fifa's top job despite widespread calls for his resignation.

"The brand stands to be damaged because you associate your brand with a sport that doesn't have a very positive image in the marketplace," said Ian Michael, a professor of marketing at Zayed University in Dubai.

"There's evidence that sport can have positive impact on your brand. But on the flip side, an endorser, a person who's the face of your brand, can actually bring down the equity of your brand very quickly."

Emirates signed a US$195 million (Dh716.2m) sponsorship deal with Fifa to become an official partner between 2007 and 2014. But as Fifa has become embroiled in corruption allegations, Emirates has become vocal about reconsidering its position.

"With Emirates putting down so much money on the table to be associated with a sport that is generating a lot of interest and if the sport is getting a bad name, will the company also be tarnished with the same image?" Mr Michael said.

"There are two ways to look at it. Either,they look and say this is just going to be swept under the carpet. The big question mark is, would you want your brand to be associated with some event where there are stories in the newspapers about this sport being corrupt and officials being corrupt and racism happening in the sport?"

In the case of Tiger Woods, several companies including Accenture dropped sponsorship deals after the golfer's fall from grace in 2009.

With the World Cup among the most widely viewed sporting events in the world, Emirates' exposure from the deal has been huge.

"I think Emirates would feel shortchanged by what's happened," said Gaurav Sinha, the managing director of Insignia, a UAE brand communications company.

"Emirates will definitely take this seriously and probably be more diligent about what they align themselves to in future. Other large corporations, whether it's Coca-Cola or adidas, which are also deeply entrenched in football, will all have to take stock of what's happening.

"But the consumer is fairly smart, and that doesn't mean that you should stop sponsoring football and sports. It amplifies the need for better governance from brands as well as bodies to make sure that they live up to their promises."

* with Bloomberg