The FIFA name keeps coming up in the news these days, for good and bad reasons. We’ve had the nice addition of women’s international teams to Electronic Arts’ FIFA 16 — about time — and we’ve seen the FIFA organization rocked by indictments of high-level officials, stemming from alleged offenses of racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering. It’s not often that the sports game world gets crossed up with big stories like this, but it’s fascinating to see how companies navigate these waters when it does.
Watching EA (and FIFA itself) release the women’s teams story one day after this major scandal broke is kind of sad, hilarious and aggravating at the same time. We have a story that should be garnering some meaningful press and good will for the players involved, and yet it’s being stepped on by the larger story of FIFA as an organization. It’s also kind of a silly way to try and counter the narrative that’s emerging of FIFA as a brand, as no level of counter-spin is going to pull people away from the graft and corruption that’s been emblematic of the parent organization for years. It also gets the blood boiling when you realize that the major story of the Qatari migrant worker deaths is being lost in the maelstrom here.
If you haven’t heard about the real scandal of all this FIFA business, read here, here and here. Make no mistake: FIFA as an organization is dirty. It’s got a lot of stroke, and it can facilitate a great deal of money changing hands when it wants to. The fact that Qatar was awarded the World Cup is why we’re hearing about this scandal right now, but the larger story that’s being muddled is the horrendous number of deaths involved in migrant workers. Great numbers of these workers are dying each and every day to make the 8-12 stadiums needed for the 2022 World Cup.
When you have Qatar being awarded the World Cup — a nation with roughly two million people and little in the way of soccer culture, as well as sweltering temperatures — it begs lots of questions about how that came about. But what it also does is allow a whole lot of masking of human rights abuses. These stadiums have been under construction for a couple of years now, and some reports say that workers are dying at a rate of one or two a day. The most ominous of reports comes from The Guardian, sourced above, which states that as many as 4,000 Nepalese, Indian and Sri Lankan workers will die by 2022. Just think about that number: 4,000. That’s more deaths than September 11th, and as the Washington Post shows, it is orders of magnitude more than many of the recent World Cups and Olympic Games combined.
All this said, everyone has a choice. Some may still watch the World Cup when it comes around in 2022. In fact, millions likely will. It would be great to see increasing pressure on FIFA, the Qatari government, football players and sponsors to speak up — at least — or to outright boycott the World Cup in that year. Everyone has their own standard for what they’ll say, and that often differs from what actions they will actually take. Just like you, I can say how much I disapprove of this story, but it’s up to me to take action by withdrawing support and spreading the word about how this situation could improve.
Electronic Arts is another group that has a choice. They can choose to speak up about all of this, giving themselves some agency over the story and the game they publish. Then again, their contract with FIFA likely forbids such hand-biting behaviour, and you have to wonder if a company as big as EA would really risk losing the money associated with the brand. Could EA re-brand the game and still sell copies? I feel they could. They’re a clever company, and they could rejig the game similar to how they did it with Tiger Woods PGA Tour. Again, it’s laughable when they’re trying to put forth something progressive with the women’s teams when they are countering it with greed, corruption and death.
The Tiger Woods situation is ridiculously tame in comparison, as EA was forced to pivot and find a new path when Tiger was found to be cheating on his wife. That alone kind of shows how backwards things are, when people are getting up in arms about infidelity but then sitting on their hands when hundreds — if not thousands — are dying to make stadiums in a country that shouldn’t be making stadiums in the first place. Then again, re-branding the PGA Tour game was also convenient for EA, as Tiger was already losing the skill that made him a draw on the tour. They took a year off, got a new face on the cover and changed the name. The brand of “PGA” still pushes through a bit, and the game only sells to a certain audience, so it was the right play all around.
Similarly, the NCAA player pay situation was another potential land mine for EA, but they ejected on that one pretty early. Like PGA Tour, NCAA was selling in the neighbourhood of two million copies. At that level, it’s kind of an easy punch to avoid, as it’s simply not a bet worth taking on EA’s part. On top of that, some of the agency was taken from them, as certain conferences withdrew their licensing arrangements with EA, making the overall brand incomplete. This was a situation where EA potentially had some culpability and money to pay, so they got out while they could.
With the FIFA series, it’s hard to say what EA will or won’t do. For now, they don’t have to worry, as the World Cup is a long time from now, and they can just say that they’re allowing the bureaucracy stuff to run its course. The licensing arrangement probably also prohibits them from escaping the contract easily, and they’d likely be levied various fines if they did. One also has to wonder if the absurd selling power of the franchise (15 to 20 million copies last year) is going to paralyze EA from doing anything. They should be doing something — or at least saying something — but they’re probably seeing what sticks and what doesn’t out of all of these indictments.
With such a progressive addition to the FIFA series arriving in women’s international teams, it seems incumbent on EA to follow through on that mantra and decide what they’re going to do about FIFA as part of their branding. EA has been trying to repair their battered image over the last few years, and this is an area where they could show some true leadership in the industry by simply doing the right thing.