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Marketers Must Prepare for Global Conflicts to Wreak More Havoc on Sports than Pandemic Did

The day following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the sports dominoes began to fall: UEFA moved the Champions League final from St. Petersburg to Paris, Formula 1 canceled the Russian Grand Prix, the ATP Challenger Tour cancelled this week’s stop in Moscow, and the Turkish Airlines Euroleague postponed a marquee pro basketball matchup between Barcelona and CSKA Moscow in Moscow.

As we have witnessed throughout the Covid pandemic, events—the most part—can be moved, rescheduled or replaced—recouping some, if not all, of their value for governing bodies and partners.

But a much larger potential impact looms, as current events in Europe could cause many international companies and sports properties to rethink indefinitely where and with whom they seek partnership opportunities.

At the time of writing this post, UEFA was reportedly in meetings about ending its nine-year-old, $60-million-a-year deal with Russian state oil company Gazprom. Manchester United had already announced, “We have withdrawn Aeroflot’s sponsorship rights,” referring to the Russian national airline that has been the club’s official carrier since 2013. That would seemingly be the tip of the iceberg in terms of sports organizations extricating themselves from ties with Russian entities, and in the days ahead brands that partner with properties owned by the country’s oligarchs are likely to examine those relationships as well.

But beyond immediate concerns over Russia, the current situation serves as a stark reminder and warning to global marketers about the pitfalls of conducting business with—and in—countries whose governments and leaders can quickly earn the scorn of the international community.

While there are many corporations and organizations that will find it necessary to continue to take such calculated risks, they are no longer without a contemporary example of the potential negative consequences. The sports world’s responses to the war in Ukraine—wiping out hundreds of millions of dollars of value in the blink of an eye—demonstrate that discussions of whether to sponsor events in China or accept funding from Saudi sovereign funds are not mere academic exercises.

For now, those with ties to actual or perceived “bad actors” should double down on communications strategies justifying such relationships and contingency plans for if and when circumstances go from bad to worse.

A sentence from a story in Britain’s Daily Mirror about Man U cutting ties with Aeroflot encapsulated the position many brands and organizations will find themselves in. “United are now looking to agree a deal with a different airline for them to be the club’s official carriers,” it said, adding without a shred of irony, “with Qatar Airways one option being considered.”

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