By Barry Janoff
May 28, 2015: As the walls of FIFA were being bombarded with accusations of bribery, racketeering and money laundering, the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team created a wall of strength as they looked ahead to the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup.
"Our focus is to win the World Cup," said Jill Ellis, head coach for the U.S. Women's Team. "That's why I was hired. That's the goal. That's what we plan to do."
Ellis and her team were united at a media event in New York on Wednesday (May 27), not by plan the same day that 14 people, including nine current and former FIFA executives, were indicted on numerous charges of corruption relating to World Cup, CONCACAF and other games and events, marketing, TV and other deals.
Ellis was asked about the FIFA situation, but kept her eyes on the prize.
"This sport and the World Cup is not about FIFA, it's about the players on the field and the team," she said. Nothing can distract us from what we have to do on the field. The game is bigger than anything."
The 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup will be held in six cities across Canada beginning June 6 and culminating July 5 with the final in Vancouver. The English-language games will be shown in the U.S. exclusively on Fox.
There will be plenty of marketing and activation to support the event, but official FIFA sponsors have expressed not only their dismay at the indictments but the way in which the global game and their support of it have been impacted.
Official FIFA global partners include adidas, Coca-Cola, Hyundai-Kia Motors and Visa; and such World Cup partners as McDonald's and Anheuser-Busch.
U.S. Soccer marketing partners include AT&T, Anheuser-Busch (Budweiser), Century 21, Chevrolet, Clorox, Coca-Cola, Continental Tire, Coppertone, Degree, EA Sports, Johnson & Johnson, Liberty Mutual, Marriott, Mondelez and Nike.
"Our disappointment and concern with FIFA in light of today’s developments is profound," Visa said in a statement. "As a sponsor, we expect FIFA to take swift and immediate steps to address these issues within its organization. This starts with rebuilding a culture with strong ethical practices in order to restore the reputation of the games for fans everywhere."
"This lengthy controversy has tarnished the mission and ideals of the FIFA World Cup, and we have repeatedly expressed our concerns about these serious allegations," Coca-Cola echoed in its statement. "We expect FIFA to continue to address these issues thoroughly. FIFA has stated that it is responding to all requests for information and we are confident it will continue to cooperate fully with the authorities."
McDonald's, adidas and Anheuser-Busch were among the marketing partners to also come out with statements imploring FIFA to clean up its house.
When asked about the FIFA news, veteran U.S. player Abby Wambach initially replied with a straight face, "Did something happen today?" She then put the situation into a player's perspective.
"It's important to note that whatever happens in Switzerland or in Brazil or in Japan with their federations, or even our own, and FIFA, we have no idea what goes on, nor do we have any control," said Wambach. "We're here because we want to talk about the World Cup. It's not because of what they're doing in Switzerland or what they're doing in back channels. We just want to talk about football."
Rather than decrying the situation, EA Sports, which was among the companies present at the media day event, also chose to focus on the game, specifically its FIFA 16 release, which will include for the first time women's national teams.
“Bringing some of the best women’s players and teams in the world to our franchise is a massive event for EA Sports, and we are equally excited about bringing millions of fans a new way to play,” David Rutter, vp and GM for EA Sports FIFA, said in a statement. “We’re making sure fans get an authentic experience when playing with Women’s National Teams thanks to our innovative player capture and reference tools, as well as the sophisticated gameplay platform which we will continue to innovate on in FIFA 16.”
Multi-marketing support includes a commercial featuring such members of the U.S. Women's Team as Wambach and Alex Morgan.
Morgan is at the top of the list among teammates regarding marketing deals, with a roster that includes Nike, Mondelez (Ritz, Oreo, Chips Ahoy), McDonald's, ChapStick, Coca-Cola and Panasonic.
Sydney Leroux (Nike, BodyArmor, Beats by Dre) and Kelley O'Hara (Coopertone, Built With Chocolate Milk, Under Armour) also are among those on the team with multiple deals.
Winning a World Cup would add marketing depth to these and others on the squad. But entering the competition, the expressed desire was not on deals but on defeating the rest of the competition.
The U.S. Women's team last won a World Cup in 1999. In 2011 in Germany, the team lost in the finals to Japan, and placed third in both 2007 and 2003.
Wambach, who turns 35 just days before the start of the Women's World Cup, pulled no punches when it came to her goal.
"I haven't won a World Cup," she said. "You're damn right I want to win it. You give it your all. You put everything into it. It's like love. This will be my last World Cup and I want to go out on top."
Goaltender Hope Solo earlier this year was involved in a domestic violence situation, the impact of which included her being suspended from the team for 30 days. When asked about that, she too put her focus on the upcoming tournament.
"I'm here to talk about the World Cup and soccer," she said. "What I can tell you is I'm in the best place of my life, both on the field and off the field. I have a great team behind me and a great coaching staff, and I'm honestly just really excited for the World Cup."
"This lengthy controversy has tarnished the mission and ideals of the FIFA World Cup, and we have repeatedly expressed our concerns."
Marketers said they would closely monitor the situation with FIFA but none, as yet, has split from either the organization or the coming Women's World Cup.
Visa came the closest with its statement.
"Visa became a sponsor of FIFA because the World Cup is one of the few truly global sporting events with the power to unite people from around the world through a common love of football. Our sponsorship has always focused on supporting the teams, enabling a great fan experience, and inspiring communities to come together and celebrate the spirit of competition and personal achievement – and it is important that FIFA makes changes now, so that the focus remain on these going forward. Should FIFA fail to do so, we have informed them that we will reassess our sponsorship."
Jill Ellis, whose resume includes more than ten years (1999-2010) as head coach at UCLA — where she led the women's soccer team to eight NCAA Final Four appearances — perhaps had the best assessment on how her players could take the FIFA situation into action with them.
"I had a conversation with John Wooden (legendary head coach for the UCLA men's basketball team) about press," said Ellis. "He said to embrace it. Use it as motivation. Make it work for you."