How is the war in Ukraine changing the world of sports?

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Hands crossed, buried in his armchair, Vladimir Putin is asleep. At least, he wants to believe that when the Ukrainian delegation began the parade at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Beijing. Putin is sleeping and the whole world is tensing, worried about this new provocation in the context of growing tensions between Moscow and Kyiv. February 4, 2022: Twenty days later, thousands of Russian soldiers will cross the Ukrainian border, marking the start of a conflict that has multiple repercussions. One of the most unexpected events is the explosion of the myth of the political neutrality of the sports world.

“The current war in Ukraine puts the Olympic movement in a dilemma,” International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach said on February 28. Should we follow the line of conduct inherited from Pierre de Coubertin that makes sport a unifying tool “beyond any political debate”? Or should we focus on justice when unlike their Russian rivals, the Ukrainians can’t train?

It could be the biggest decision in the sports world since discrimination

Michael Payne Former CIO Marketing Director

The decision is at the end of the press release: Very rarely, the IOC recommends excluding Russian and Belarusian athletes after demanding the cancellation of all planned events in Russia. “This may be the biggest decision the sporting world has made since South Africa’s isolation during apartheid,” said Michael Payne, former marketing director of the IOC. “It has become increasingly clear that many athletes would not want to compete against the Russians. Faced with Vladimir Putin’s blatant disregard for the Olympic truce – the Paralympic Games in Beijing were not yet over when the Russians invaded – the IOC had to act and take a leadership role”.

Cancellations level

That’s when the machine is moved. Powerful UEFA, which governs European football, excludes Russian clubs from their competition and moves the Champions League final from Saint Petersburg to Paris. Even Fifa, which, despite being the governing body of world football, is religiously apolitical, follows the movement. Rugby, handball, ice hockey and skating federations are preparing. The volleyball world championship will not be in Russia this summer.

Sochi Grand Prix in Formula 1 has been cancelled. The Haas team has cut ties with its driver Nikita Mazepin and its title sponsor, Russian potash giant Uralkali. “There was a domino effect, not only with the positions taken, but also with the quick decisions. The world of sports is in perfect harmony with the world of politics,” summarizes Carole Gomez, director of research associated with Iris.

We used to play elsewhere with Ukrainians and Russians. We are witnessing a real change in doctrine

Vincent Chaudel, Founder of Sport Business Observatory

The breaches of contract are linked in the wake of the economic sanctions imposed by the West. UEFA has given up 40m euros per year, canceling its lucrative partnership with Gazprom. Manchester United cut ties with Aeroflot airline, PSG and online bookmaker Fonbet. Billionaire close to the Kremlin Roman Abramovich must decide to sell the Chelsea club a few months after winning the Champions League. According to Havaş, Russian money, which accounts for about 2% of global sponsorship, has an odor that can no longer be associated. “So far, sport has stayed away from political aspects,” says Vincent Chaudel, founder of the Sport Business Observatory. “We probably played Ukrainians and Russians elsewhere before. “We’re witnessing a real doctrinal shift there,” he said.

“The end of innocence or hypocrisy”

The truth seems proven: The sacred political neutrality of sport has just been shattered. But why now? The first is that Russia is in the limelight of sports authorities, who have long been suspected of establishing a corporate doping system. At that time, international sanctions reached such a level that it seems difficult to maintain economic ties as they are. Finally, unlike in other conflicts, “the situation is very clear with an aggressor and an aggressor,” stressing sports geopolitics consultant Jean-Baptiste Guégan, he sums up this shift: “The end of innocence or hypocrisy. .

The industry has been completely turned upside down, and marketing is no exception. As in every crisis, ax threatens the communication budgets of companies in the first place, although there is no general contraction yet. On the other hand, advertisers who are allergic to the idea of ​​being directly or indirectly associated with conflict are on the defensive. “For example, today we have a client who wants to sponsor a great athlete and carefully monitors the proportion of “followers” ​​of Russian or Russian origin. These are new things,” said Augustin Pénicaud, vice president of Havas Play (formerly Havas Sports & Entertainment). In particular, brands that are already very attentive to their social responsibility (CSR) on the environment may have to integrate the geopolitical factor into their investment preferences.

Pressure on Qatar

In retrospect, some weak signals were already detected. For example, at the beginning of 2021, Skoda (Volkswagen group) and Nivea (owned by Beiersdorf) refused to sponsor the ice hockey world championship in Belarus due to the opposition being suppressed by the current force. The long-reluctant international federation eventually capitulated and Latvia took back all competition. “It’s actually a reflection of an accelerating trend with consumers becoming more and more mindful,” says Magali Tézenas du Montcel, general delegate of Sporsora, which brings together players in the sports ecosystem in France. “Now the “country” risk must be taken into account.

We’ve reached the point of no return

Augustin Pénicaud Vice President of Havas Play

In this context, the next Football World Cup to be held in Qatar in November will be a test. Unusually, joint advertisers of some national teams have already expressed their intention not to communicate during the event due to fear of negative side effects. On the Emirati side, which relies heavily on sports as a “soft power” tool, betting is risky. “He can quickly turn against them. According to Jean-Baptiste Guéguan, the situation of Russia in Qatar or Saudi Arabia has calmed everyone.”

“We Opened Pandora’s Box”

We’ll see if the sports world really begins the revolution or if the Russian example remains the exception that proves the rule. Some go for the first option. “There we have reached the point of no return,” predicts Augustin Pénicaud, who thinks that “the politicization of sport is an accelerating thing, of course, with absolute certainty”. With the risks involved in this new doctrine. “We’ve opened Pandora’s box because we might end up punishing a quarter of the planet,” sighs Jean-Baptiste Guéguan.

For example, how to react if China decides to attack Taiwan? “It’s clear that sport needs to take a stance,” said the expert. “But we will have a real problem knowing that two of the IOC’s top-notch partners are Chinese (Alibaba and Mengniu) and Fifa (Wanda Group). For their share, brands will no doubt be reluctant to give up a market with a population of one and a half billion people.

Even for countries that are not global powers, the equation is not as simple as it seems. “We haven’t yet integrated what this entails,” warns Vincent Chaudel. We are “in the process of recreating the blocs that will clash” by identifying “go and non-visitable countries”. In short, he is closer to George Orwell (“Sport is war, fewer weapons”) than Pierre de Coubertin, who sought to build a better world through Olympism. Especially since many observers believe that sporting events held in “not visited” countries have a beneficial impact, including on the societal perspective.

Russia, “probably” an exception

From an economic standpoint, the operation also runs the risk of rancidity. “Financing sporting events is getting more and more expensive and therefore we cannot organize them everywhere. If we also reduce the number of host countries, we will encounter G7 members who are dividing the organization of the competitions,” continues Vincent Chaudel. Another problem: By reducing the number of players and investment power, funding sources for sport can quickly dry up. But the world of sports has adapted its lifestyle to income, and the prospect of a downgrade is not certain to fascinate its leaders. “Am we supposed to stay well in all respects among the developed countries? For example, PSG would not shine and Ligue 1 would be less attractive if Qatar were no longer there, ”says Magali Tézenas du Montcel.

There are many elements that require attention. “It doesn’t make sense to look at hypothetical scenarios. Every circumscribed case is unique,” says Michael Payne. For the former CIO executive, the example of Russia “probably” will remain an exception. Unless. If similar political and economic sanctions were imposed on another country, perhaps the world of sports would be too. would consider doing the same.” In geopolitics as in sports, every day is enough.