Sports sponsorship fuels Gazprom’s soft power

How the Russian energy supplier uses football to reach out to decision-makers

Simon Chadwick

Government and governance, Trade and industry, International relations, Arts, culture & society | Asia, The World

5 March 2019

Gazprom doesn’t sell any goods to consumers, but its advertising and brand visibility is significant in European football. Simon Chadwick takes a look at what the company may have in the pipeline.

With the latter stages of European football’s UEFA Champions League (UCL) having just kicked off, many fans are reacquainting themselves with Gazprom. A largely Russian state-owned public corporation, and the world’s biggest gas producer, Gazprom has been a UCL sponsor since 2012 and will remain so until at least 2021.

Avid viewers of the UCL will be able to recall Gazprom from the pitch-side rotational signage or else from the advertising credits that bookend televised coverage of the competition. But in case people miss the name on television, Gazprom’s logo can also be found on the shirts of German club Schalke, which it has sponsored since 2007, and on the shirts of Russian club Zenit Saint Petersburg, a club it also owns.

The UCL boasts a roster of sponsors with which most consumers will be familiar. Sony, MasterCard, Pepsi, Heineken, and Adidas are among the names jostling for the attention of football fans. And there is considerable synergy between them and the matchday experience, whether it is drinking a beer at half-time or buying a new pair of training shoes having watched a game.

But Gazprom stands out from the crowd, not least because it is certain that fans have never nipped out at half time to go and buy a couple of packs of Gazprom from the local store. The Russian gas giant does not sell anything to retail consumers, instead, it is in the business of selling gas to governments. This begs the question, then, of why a football competition – and football shirts – are a means through which to help them do this.

There are probably two key elements to it: the soft power effects of sponsorship and the way in which sponsorship can circumvent normal diplomatic procedure.

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In seeking to exert soft power, Gazprom is effectively using football as a way to build attraction, foster appeal, and soften its image. One should not forget that the company is in the business of carbon fuel extraction – even within the Arctic Circle – and remember the consequent pollution that this implies. Indeed, during several UCL games, environmental groups protesting against Gazprom have stopped play by engaging in direct action inside stadiums.

Yet Gazprom’s soft power intentions are not confined to addressing climate issues, as there are broader geopolitical and strategic dimensions. It is not a coincidence the company selected Schalke as a shirt sponsorship partner. The deal coincided with the start of construction on a contentious international gas pipeline – Nord Stream 1. This marked the first moves towards a closer energy relationship between Russia and Germany.

President Donald Trump has recently criticised Germany’s dependence upon Russian gas, which looks set to intensify as plans for Nord Stream 2 are now in the offing. Some critics though believe that Trump is merely pitching for business, as America seeks to build overseas export markets for the United States’ own gas supplies.

One imagines in this context that Gazprom’s football sponsorship portfolio will be sustained for some time to come. Indeed, with Gazprom currently serving as a FIFA partner, one wonders whether the prospect of landing in America’s front garden at the 2026 World Cup, which the US will co-host, will help to motivate Gazprom’s longer-term presence in football.

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The interesting thing about football sponsorship deals is that a sponsor does not just buy space on a shirt or placement on a rotational sign.

Rather, a package of benefits is typically acquired including a legal right to use a property’s name and access to, for example, corporate hospitality facilities inside stadia.

Hospitality boxes at UCL matches – and, for that matter, World Cup matches too – are intriguing places often populated by former players, celebrities, influential decision-makers, and, crucially, politicians. This provides a likely second explanation for Gazprom’s dalliance with football. The global game is widely loved, and many find the lure of watching a good game to be irresistible.

Hence, it seems obvious that, for a state-owned entity seeking to sell gas to governments – decisions that are often deeply embedded in a network of geopolitical interests – entertaining relevant guests in a corporate box at a UCL game is one way of circumventing normal diplomatic procedure. It is much easier, faster, and less cumbersome than lobbying in the corridors of often bureaucratic government ministries.

As if further evidence of Gazprom’s willingness to exploit football sponsorship for its own purposes is required, one need look no further than Serbia. The corporation has not only sponsored the shirts of the country’s leading club, Red Star Belgrade, it has also tried – albeit unsuccessfully – to use football as a lever in discussions about the routing of South Stream 2.

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Things did not work out, and the pipeline project, for the time being, appears to be dormant. Yet South Stream 2 does signify how football is increasingly becoming bound up with Russian state energy interests – likely its wider strategic interests too.

In this context, it should be no surprise that the Russian Football Association has recently named Gazprom’s Chief Executive, Alexander Dyukov, as its new president.

Unsurprisingly, Dyukov also previously served as president of Russia’s Zenit St Petersburg – which is, remember, based in the same city as Gazprom, owned by Gazprom, and sponsored by Gazprom. Whilst it is not unusual for companies to hold diverse portfolios of sporting assets, as Fenway Sports Group does, for example, the growing role of states and of energy interests is marked.

Alongside Gazprom, Abu Dhabi’s ownership of City Football Group, with its rapidly proliferating club franchise network and Qatar’s ownership and political interests centred around Paris Saint Germain (PSG), provide ample further evidence of the way in which football is becoming a means to an end.

So, the next time you are watching the Gazprom-sponsored UCL game, possibly involving Zenit playing either PSG or Manchester City, remember that, in reality, the contest is actually a microcosm of a much bigger game.

This piece is published in partnership with the China Soccer Observatory at the University of Nottingham.

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