By Douglas Gillison
In a year’s time, the Copa América Centenario will be in the eyes and ears of untold millions of Americans — north and south of the Equator.
Univision, the largest Spanish-language broadcaster in the United States, is already telling advertisers the tournament will be bigger than big. Fox Sports is also reportedly nearing a deal for the English-language broadcast rights.
The Centenario, a 16-nation pan-American soccer tournament to be played in as many as 13 major American media markets, is billed by its boosterish marketers as the biggest event to hit American sports since the (scandal-tarred) 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake, or the most prestigious since the 1994 World Cup — take your pick.
Giants like Argentina and Brazil will compete against the likes of the United States and Mexico, with superstar players released from duty at major clubs — think Barcelona teammates Messi and Neymar Jr. — to face off in glamor spots like New York or Los Angeles that have huge Latin American populations.
The games offer a wealth of coveted marquee moments for FIFA’s official partners, which include Coca-Cola, Hyundai, Visa and Adidas.
Broadcasters’ appetite for the tournament is only one measure of the money to be made by being seen — through banner ads, branding of official merchandise and presenting sponsorships — under the bright lights during prime time and in the stadium.
Evidently beaming, Juan Carlos Rodriguez, president of Univision Deportes, which will air the tourney, said last year that projected US television viewership “will shock you.”
Per-game ratings will top those of the 2014 World Cup, he told philly.com. Obviously, there was money to be made in the sale of such rights.
A vast indictment unveiled on Wednesday by federal prosecutors in Brooklyn described how, within the bodies that govern international soccer, the commercialization of such tournaments became a racket spanning decades and continents.
The tactics used by some in FIFA, the world governing body, and regional officials for North America, will be familiar to drug cartels: tax havens, bulk cash smuggling (i.e. a suitcase full of cash picked up at a Paris hotel), middlemen, safe deposit boxes, numbered accounts, envelope distributions and, of course, an aversion to frank talk on the telephone.
Media rights to the Copa América Centenario were allegedly the subject of a $110 million bribery scheme. According to the indictment, the politically-connected Argentine sports marketing executive Alejandro Burzaco purportedly said during a meeting in south Florida only last year that he knew just what everyone involved was doing.
“All can get hurt because of this subject,” he said, in words that somehow — likely through one of several cooperating defendants — made their way to the ears of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
“All of us can go to prison.”
This table produced by US federal prosecutors shows an alleged schedule of bribes paid to soccer officials for the media rights to four Copa América events, of which $40 million had been paid so far.
Burzaco is now one of 14 people under indictment.
Representatives of both Univision and Fox Sports told 100Reporters they had no comment.
But the “media rights” at issue in the alleged Copa América Centenario scheme appear to include field boards and LED panels, in-stadium advertising and 3D carpets, or optical signage visible to TV viewers.
The website for Traffic Sports, the longtime marketing arm for the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football, or CONCACAF, says it can offer these things to clients. Traffic’s founder José Hawilla secretly pleaded guilty in December to conspiring to commit racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering.
CONCACAF, where three executives are now under indictment (and whose offices were raided by the FBI on Wednesday), did not respond to a request for comment.
Aaron Davidson, president of Traffic, is also under indictment. The company’s main telephone number was giving out a busy signal on Thursday.
Prosecutors allege that Hawilla and Burzaco, along with the Argentinian sports marketers Hugo and Mariano Jinkis, formed a joint venture called Datisa, which did business as WeMatch and entered into agreements worth more than $350 million to acquire the media rights to all Copa América tournaments from 2015 to 2023.
A WeMatch brochure calls on advertisers to “[a]ssociate your product with the 100th anniversary of the world’s oldest soccer tournament” by paying for their logos to appear on event-related knickknacks at the Centenario.
To win that business, Datisa allegedly agreed to pay $110 million to five people: Jeffrey Webb, the recently dismissed CONCACAF president and member of the FIFA executive committee who was arrested this week in Zurich; Eugenio Figueredo and Nicolás Leoz, two former presidents of the South American confederation CONMEBOL; as well as Rafael Esquivel, a board member, and José Maria Marin, former president of Brazil’s soccer federation with ties to that country’s former military regime.
Beginning in 2013, the installments on the alleged bribes began passing from accounts at Delta National Bank in Miami to the Julius Baer Group and Bank Hapoalim in Zurich via Citi and Chase in New York.
Through his company, Burzaco denied the allegations while the Jinkises’ company has not responded, according to Reuters.
Advertisers are clearly unhappy. In a statement posted Wednesday, Visa threatened to withdraw its sponsorship and said its “disappointment and concern with FIFA in light of today’s developments is profound.”
“All sponsors, and advertisers for that matter, will naturally evaluate their commercial relationship with FIFA as a result of the recent charges and admissions by certain people,” said Paul Smith, founder of the sports and entertainment-focused market research firm Repucom.
Among its clients, Repucom lists the longtime FIFA sponsor Adidas, which this week said it expected the “highest standards of ethics and compliance” from FIFA.
Smith said the more important question was whether anything good would come of the latest crisis. “Crisis often instigates radical change,” he wrote in an email.
“Can sponsors better drive the process by remaining engaged and committed in the long term?” Smith wrote. “I believe the answer is yes.”
Top photo: FBI agents carry boxes from the headquarters of CONCACAF after it was raided in Miami Wednesday. The raid is part of an international investigation of FIFA, in which nine FIFA officials and five corporate executives were charged with racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracies. (Photo by Joe Skipper/Getty Images)